Somalia Olympic runner 'drowns trying to reach Europe'

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Samia Yusuf Omar at the 2008 OlympicsImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Samia was said to have moved to Ethiopia in search of a coach

A Somali Olympic athlete has reportedly drowned while attempting to reach Europe on a migrant boat.

Runner Samia Yusuf Omar was trying to cross from Libya to Italy in April when the boat she was travelling in sank, according to Italian media.

The head of Somalia's National Olympic Committee confirmed to the BBC that she had died but did not say how.

Samia competed in the 200m event at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 despite having almost no formal training.

Although she came in last place, several seconds behind the other competitors, the BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome says it is extraordinary that she was able to take part at all.

She had grown up and trained in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, facing war, poverty, a complete lack of athletics facilities and prejudice from some quarters against women participating in sports.

According to a profile of Samia on al-Jazeera, she faced death threats and intimidation when she returned to Somalia after the 2008 Olympics, with the Islamist militia al-Shabab controlling parts of the capital.

'We will not forget'

In October 2010, the runner is reported to have moved to Ethiopia in search of a coach to help her train for the London 2012 Olympics.

What happened between then and her apparent death in the Mediterranean Sea is unclear.

According to al-Jazeera, there were no guarantees that she would be accepted to train at the stadium in Addis Ababa - it was dependent on her running times and permission from the Ethiopian Athletics Federation.

Media caption,

Hodan on her sister Samia Yusuf Omar: "She was always there to comfort me. She was part of my life"

Reports in Italian media suggest she may have been hoping to find a coach in Europe who could help her reach the London Olympics.

Her sister Hodan, who lives in Finland, told the BBC's Newsday programme that Samia had left Addis Ababa and first travelled to Sudan and then up to Libya.

"She arrived in Libya in September 2011; for several months we didn't hear from her when she was lost in the Libyan desert and detained there," Hodan said.

"Then she decided to go by boat, and we told her not to, and my mother tried to tell her not to. But Samia was very determined and asked for our mother's forgiveness, and my mother gave it, and she took the boat, and she died."

Hoda said the family heard about the death from some people travelling on the same boat.

"Samia died in an incident when the Italian navy approached them when they ran out of petrol, and they asked for help, so the Italian ship threw some ropes over the side for them to catch and swim to the navy ship, but unfortunately she was one of seven people - six women and one man - who died trying to get on to the Italian ship by the ropes," she said.

Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera says Samia's fate only came to light when former Somali Olympic athlete Abdi Bile brought it up at a talk.

He mentioned Mo Farah, the Somali runner who moved to the United Kingdom aged 12 and triumphed in this year's Olympics.

"We are happy for Mo - he is our pride," he said. "But we will not forget Samia."

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