With 80,000 track fans temporarily silent, the starter’s gun cracked and the runners exploded from the blocks.
Once the winner of the 400-metre heat crossed the line, the Olympic Stadium had another 30 seconds to take the full measure of Zamzam Mohamed Farah as she plodded around the track.
When she eventually stepped across the finish line, with a spectacularly slow time of 1:20.48, the slight Somali runner was showered with applause – none of it ironic.
If the Olympics are really about embodying the spirit of humanity in competition and not just racking up medals, Ms. Farah, a 21-year-old from Mogadishu, should be saluted with the gravity that befits her nation’s situation.
After all, it’s hard to develop world-class speed when decades of anarchic civil war have reduced all the country’s running tracks to piles of urban blight.
To be a truly great athlete you have to leave, like Ms. Farah’s namesake, British runner Mohamed Farah, who sensationally won gold in the men’s 10,000 metres on Saturday evening, prompting delirium in the same stadium where Zamzam, who carried her national flag into the opening ceremonies, ran.
Although Mo Farah, as he is known, left Mogadishu at 8, grew up in West London and now trains in Oregon and Kenya, he remains a national hero in the land of his birth. The war-torn country has only two athletes and a small support team at the London Olympics, and those who made the trip did so in defiance of threats from an al-Qaeda offshoot based in the east African nation.
Sports are a favourite target: Somalia’s Olympic committee president Aden Yabarow Wiish was assassinated in a theatre bombing in April.
After her race on Friday, the first day of athletics at the Games, Ms. Farah waved to the crowd and slowly wandered into the chaos of the media mixed zone in the bowels of the Olympic Stadium.
Mixed zones – a labyrinth of partitions that winds through a thicket of several hundred journalists – are chaotic after track events, and Ms. Farah looked on with what appeared to be incomprehension.
She waved away questions (from The Globe and Mail and from a local reporter, pointing at her bib: “Did Mo Farah give that to you?” “No, it’s my name”) before relenting when she spotted countryman Abdiaziz Godah.
The Olympics draws a motley assortment of interesting characters like Mr. Godah, who for the past 14 years has lived in a small city in southern Finland, where he is a basketball coach (he also said he coaches Somalia’s under-18 squad, though how he does this from Scandinavia wasn’t clear). The personable Mr. Godah is also the president of the Somali Sports Press Association, which explains his presence in the mixed zone.
Mr. Godah tried to press a mobile phone into Ms. Farah’s hands so she could talk to a Somali radio personality – until an Olympic official forced him to put it away.
“It was great to be here to participate in the Olympic Games and tell people Somalia is still here,” she said through Mr. Godah, who was wearing a track suit in Somalia’s (and Finland’s, come to think of it) official colours of white and blue.