Joseph Akoon (SSU) reflects on his race after finishing 7th in the men’s 800 metre heat at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo: Sharome Burton/IOC Young Reporters)

From Strife to Strides at the Youth Olympic Games


BUENOS AIRES — Becoming an Olympian takes hundreds of hours of hard work and perseverance. For athletes from war-torn countries, the challenges go far beyond that.

Take the case of 16-year-old Abdiraashid Yusuf Ali, a 1500-metre runner from Somalia who is competing at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires.

1500 metre and Cross Country runner Abdiraashid Yusuf Ali (SOM) at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo: Sharome Burton/IOC Young Reporter)

Ali has spent his entire life in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, a troubled country on the Horn of Africa that has experienced constant civil war and widespread violence since the 1980s.

“Somalia is very difficult to live in,’’ Ali said after finishing 12th in his heat on Saturday. “We live in fear of the [Al Shabaab] terrorists …. and we hope there will be peace.”

Somalia, a country of 14 million people, managed to send a small team of only three athletes to Buenos Aires, including Ali.

Even though he finished only 12th out of 13 runners in his heat on Saturday, just getting to the world stage has been a breakthrough for Ali. He will also compete in the men’s cross country race on Monday.

“I’m very happy to be in [the Youth Olympics] today and I hope to be the future champion,” he said.

With all the difficulties back home, Ali’s goal is to improve enough to be selected to train in Kenya. But his heart remains with his homeland.

“There are many athletes [in the country], but living in Somalia is difficult and very dangerous,’’ he Ali said. “But I love Somalia, I am Somalia, my origin is Somalia.”

Another track-and-field athlete who has defied the odds to earn a spot in Buenos Aires 2018 is 16-year-old Joseph Akoon, an 800-metre runner from South Sudan.

South Sudan is the newest country in the world after gaining independence from Sudan in 2011 after a brutal civil war which persisted for decades.

“Firstly I will give thanks to God because I reached here safely,’’ said Akoon, who placed eighth in his heat on Saturday in 1 minute, 54 seconds. “I’m here to represent my country. At least I can do something better [for them].”

Akoon, who grew up in the period after the peace agreement was signed in 2005, took up running at the age of 5. He now splits his training between his homeland and Kampala, Uganda, a place he says only the better athletes are afforded the opportunity to train.

Joseph Akoon (SSU) looks dejected after placing 7th in his 800 metre heat at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo: Sharome Burton/IOC Young Reporter)

Akoon believes that sport has the ability to keep his country together.

“Really it’s only sport because sport can bring the unity to people with some drive to be in one team,” he said. “You can feel that is your brother.”

Story by IOC Young Reporter Sharome Burton