ATLANTA — When middle-distance runner Abdi Bile led the tiny Somalian delegation into the Olympics' opening ceremony, few of the 85,000 in attendance could have had any idea how far this man has traveled, both literally and figuratively, to arrive at the Centennial Games.
He didn't get introduced to track until he was 18 in 1982, but he has been running ever since in places far removed from his countrymen's limited life experiences. The world began to open up to Bile the next year when he arrived in Fairfax, Va., on the Fourth of July, to attend George Mason University on a track scholarship, the result of a recommendation. This was quite a transition for someone who had once tended flocks of goats, camels, and cattle.
Since then he has twice earned Track and Field News's No. 1 annual international ranking in the 1,500 meters in 1987 and 1989. He won the American major-college championship in 1985 and '87 and the world championship and global Grand Prix final in 1987.
There's only one catch. If they gave gold medals for Olympic frustration, Bile might be the champion. He's 3-for-3 at the Games: three trips, three major disappointments. In 1984, he was so eager to compete he ran with a fractured leg. He improved his personal best by five seconds in the semifinal. "Pow, I came out of nowhere to make the Olympic final. Unbelievable," he says. "I made it, but later was notified that I had been disqualified," supposedly for pushing another runner.
The 1988 Olympics figured to be his time. "I was hardly losing to anyone," he recalls. "No competition. No problem. This is mine." Only it wasn't. Another injury intervened to prevent his participation, and the same thing happened once again shortly before the '92 Games.
When the first round of the men's 1,500 opens here Monday, Bile will be an underdog, yet he still holds out hope. "You just do your best, and sometimes more than your best," he says of his medal quest at what will probably be his last Olympics. "Emotionally sometimes you don't know how you do it, it just happens."
When the Monitor caught up to Bile a month ago, he was just beginning a solitary, late-afternoon workout in LaGrange, Ga. For the last several years this small community 60 miles southwest of Atlanta has hosted a group of mostly up-and-coming African athletes as part of a community outreach/training program. The track was so hot that before he started practice, Bile hosed down a section just to make it cooler.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, his schedule consisted of training, resting, and going to the college library. "Every day I read the Wall Street Journal," says the college business and marketing graduate.
He is a professional athlete now, one who makes a living largely through track appearance fees. His coach lives in San Diego. They communicate via fax. He is represented by Gold Medal Management in Boulder, Colo. His wife and young child have lived in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait for months, yet Bile says, "America is home for us." He grew up in a nomadic family, and it is still that way.
Life has had its personal hurdles, to be sure. After his sensational 1989 season, Bile had to deal with various hardships that kept him from major competition. The worst of these occurred in 1990, with Somalia engulfed in political turmoil. Ten members of his immediate family drowned while trying to sail to freedom on an overcrowded vessel.
Bile has found track to his liking partly because it allows him to go it alone. He was a schoolboy soccer player who didn't like track upon his first introduction to it. He found it too torturous, but he warmed to it with the realization that running suited his mental outlook. Playing soccer, he says, he was often upset, even in victory, because someone was not doing his part. "Track is a different sport," he observes. "I never leave disappointed. I lose races, but I still know I have done the best I could."
His greatest success, winning the world championship in 1987, was also his homeland's greatest sporting moment. It marked Somalia's first breakthrough in world sports.
"That's really been my biggest accomplishment," he says thoughtfully, "to change the whole nation's attitude and make the [Somali] people believe that they can be winners, that they can be champions."