Somalia: the little Olympic team that could

To get to Sydney next month, these athletes have had to jump countless hurdles - and not the 800-meter track-and-field kind.

Next month, when the United States ships hundreds of its finest athletes to the Sydney Olympics, their muscles warmed in red, white, and blue spandex, the Land of the Free will also pack them off with a princely care package of sponsorships. It seems the sprinters, kayakers, and decathletes heading for Australia need to bring nothing but their passports.

Well, the little Olympic squad from Somalia doesn't even have that. After a decade of civil war and with no government, their country technically doesn't exist. And forget about snazzy Nike windbreakers and free Kodak cameras. The majority of the Somali national team's budget went toward a single purchase. A state-of-the-art gym? Nope.

A tennis racket.

The team of seven has little chance of winning medals at the Games but for them success is not about gold, silver, or bronze, but raising their flag and helping put Somalia back on the map.

"When our athletes take to the field at the Olympics we hope to show the world that countries are about people, not governments," says Abdullahi Turabi, secretary of the Somali Olympic Committee (SOC). The international community tried one attempt after another to settle the disorder and restore a government, including a failed US military mission in 1993. But naive to the peculiarities of Somali politics, each attempt floundered.

So the United Nations and the world in general washed their hands of Somalia and Somalia fell off the world map.

A few weeks ago, three of the team's seven members gathered in the dingy run-down SOC office. These young Somalis come from different clans and different areas and have little in common save their love of sport.

When the Somali state collapsed in 1991, most organizations collapsed with it. But throughout the war, a small group of committed individuals battled to make sure that Somali sports didn't go the same way. "I don't really know how to explain how we managed," says Mire Omar, a senior member of the SOC.

And for the athletes themselves, it was even tougher. As Abdisammad Jamale started to tell his story, he fiddled nervously with the tattered shoelaces on his tennis shoes. "It's thanks to my uncle that I'm here today." Back in the days when Somalia was at peace, his uncle would leave work early three times a week and wander down Mogadishu's dusty boulevards toward the Italian Tennis Club. During the strife of civil war, a bullet to the head killed him during a tennis match.

The only female member of the Muslim country's team has possibly faced more obstacles than any of her teammates. Safia Hussein trains for the 400-meter dash wearing a headscarf. Her training has been handicapped not just by pitiful facilities, but by prejudice.

"One day when I was at the stadium training," she remembers, "some old men came up to me and tried to chase me away, [and yelling]: 'It is demeaning for a woman to put on trousers and run in the street!' "

And as for Abdisammad, the Somali Olympic Committee just invested a large part of their tiny budget and bought him his first racket ever. He just hopes he doesn't bust a string:

"Excuse me Mr. Sampras. Could I borrow one of yours?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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