This is the Olympic story we never heard.
It’s about a girl whose Beijing moment lasted a mere 32 seconds – the slowest 200-meter dash time out of the 46 women who competed in the event. Thirty-two seconds that almost nobody saw but that she carries home with her, swelled with joy and wonderment. Back to a decades-long civil war that has flattened much of her city. Back to an Olympic program with few Olympians and no facilities. Back to meals of flat bread, wheat porridge and tap water.
When the gun went off in Samia’s 200-meter heat, seven women blasted from their starting blocks, registering as little as 16 one-hundredths of a second of reaction time. Samia’s start was slow enough that the computer didn’t read it, leaving her reaction time blank on the heat’s statistical printout.
Within seconds, seven competitors were thundering around the curve in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, struggling to separate themselves from one another. Samia was just entering the curve when her opponents were nearing the finish line. A local television feed had lost her entirely by the time Veronica Campbell-Brown crossed the finish line in a trotting 23.04 seconds.
As the athletes came to a halt and knelt, stretching and sucking deep breaths, a camera moved to ground level. In the background of the picture, a white dot wearing a headband could be seen coming down the stretch.
As Samia came down the stretch in her 200-meter heat, she realized that the Somalian Olympic federation had chosen to place her in the wrong event. The 200 wasn’t nearly the best event for a middle distance runner. But the federation believed the dash would serve as a “good experience” for her. Now she was coming down the stretch alone, pumping her arms and tilting her head to the side with a look of despair.
Suddenly, the half-empty stadium realized there was still a runner on the track, still pushing to get across the finish line almost eight seconds behind the seven women who had already completed the race. In the last 50 meters, much of the stadium rose to its feet, flooding the track below with cheers of encouragement. A few competitors who had left Samia behind turned and watched it unfold.
As Samia crossed the line in 32.16 seconds, the crowd roared in applause.