August 24, 2008 (KHARTOUM) — A Darfur native brought home Sudan’s first-ever Olympic medal, a silver in the men’s 800 meter race, putting a rare positive light on the war-torn region.
- Sudan’s Ismail Ahmed Ismail poses on the podium with his silver medal after the Men’s 800m at the National stadium as part of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games on August 23, 2008 (AFP)
After nearly 50 years of Sudanese participation in the Olympics, Ismail Ahmed Ismail took the country’s first medal, winning silver in the men’s 800 meters.
Ismail was hailed as a national hero and his picture—wrapped in a Sudanese flag—was emblazoned across the front pages of the country’s normally staid press.
“An unprecedented achievement,” read the headline of the daily al-Sahafa. For once, Sudan’s antagonistic papers, backing the rival northern and southern halves of the country, were in complete agreement.
Ismail cross the finish line in 1 minute, 44.70 seconds, 0.05 seconds after winner Wilfred Bungei of Kenya. He beat reigning world champion Alfred Yego of Kenya, who had to settle for bronze.
“This man deserves to be honored. He has made us happy,” said Salah al-Mubarak, a sports columnist with the southern-aligned Ajras al-Hurriyeh newspaper.
“It shows you this region has another face and has things to celebrate,” Mahmoud Medani, a former football player and a businessman from Darfur, told The Associated Press. “It is a source of pride for us, not for us alone but for all Sudanese people.”
Ismail’s medal came at a time when Sudan is facing an unprecedented internal debate on the Darfur conflict.
Longtime Sudan President Omar al-Bashir is facing charges of genocide from the International Criminal Court for the situation in Darfur, where up to 300,000 people have been killed and more than 2.5 million displaced since 2003.
Since the charges were filed on July 14, the local media has begun discussing the once-taboo issue, debating what would happen if al-Bashir is arrested and how to bring peace to the troubled region.
Ismail’s family is from western Darfur, but like many others they migrated from the impoverished region to Khartoum before he was born.
“I can’t find words to express my joy. This is an achievement for my country first and then for me,” Ismail was quoted as saying by the Sudan Media Center, which has close links to the government. “I was able to achieve this honor because of a lot of hard training.”
Ismail’s family couldn’t be immediately reached for comment. But the 23-year-old runner has not had it easy.
Hanadi Ismail, a reporter and family friend, said he and his five brothers and sisters grew up in the poor Khartoum neighborhood of Hajj Youssef.
Ismail’s wife gave birth to their son just 42 days ago, but has yet to name him because they cannot afford the naming ceremony.
Sudan sent just nine athletes to Beijing, all but one of them in track and field events.
“This is what I can call an honor for the Sudan,” said 32-year-old Babiker Mekki, a Khartoum resident, when asked about Ismail’s medal.