Fewer than a million people live in the tiny African nation of Djibouti so it goes without saying that when one of their citizens excels on the global stage, everyone there hears about it.
When Ayanleh Souleiman surprised athletics aficionados with an 800m bronze medal performance at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow, he soared into the spotlight. Not since Ahmed Salah took back-to-back silvers in the 1987 and 1991 World Championship marathons has the country had something so significant to cheer about.
Souleiman’s reception at the national airport on his return after Moscow last summer was overwhelming. He has become an instant idol to thousands of youngsters.
“Yes, my arrival at the airport was great and people appreciated my efforts,” he explained. “And now there are 23 athletes from Djibouti who have come to train with me to be as good, some would like to be better.”
Souleiman, having turned 21 last month, now has his sights set on the upcoming World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland, which will be held between 7-9 March. He will contest the 1500m, which is possibly his best distance at this point in his career despite him crashing out in the semi-finals of the longer event at the World Championships.
He ran a national record of 3:30.31 outdoors in 2012 and finished fifth over the distance at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships.
In preparation for this year’s championships, he will line up for the 3000m in Dusseldorf on 30 January before a 1500m race at the IAAF Indoor Permit meeting in Stockholm on 6 February.
Last summer saw IAAF Diamond League victories in Oslo (3:50.53 mile), Paris (3:32.55 1500m), London (3:50.07 mile) and Stockholm (3:33.59 1500m), and podium finishes in Doha and Zurich ensured Souleiman won the overall Diamond Race.
All things considered, the 800m bronze in Moscow was a nice surprise and addition to his burgeoning list of accolades, but having to race three times before the 1500m heats probably cost him a place in the final – and maybe a medal – at the longer distance.
“My coach (Jama Aden) and I planned to double. We were looking for a medal in the 800m – which worked out well – as well as trying to win the 1500m, but the physical race and a little fatigue from the 800m ruined my chances.
Coe and Ovett inspiration
“Jama showed me some races where (Sebastian) Coe and Steve Ovett doubled in the past. I think if I concentrated on the 1500m I would have won it, but I am not regretting it. It was good experience. No one expected I could win a medal in the 800m except my coaches Jama Aden, Ibrahim Aden (the brother and assistant to Jama) and Abdi Bile (Somalia’s 1987 World Championships 1500m gold medallist) who I look up to.”
He credits the combine trio with his rise to the upper echelon of middle distance running, but it is Jama Aden who holds a special place in his heart.
The pair originally met at the 2009 IAAF World Youth Championships in Bressanone, Italy, his first international competition.
“Jama is well known,” reflected Souleiman. “I met him in 2009, when I ran in the (World Youth Championships) 3000m. I went out in the first round and ever since it was my dream to be coached by Jama.
“I talked to my federation and the ministry of sports in Djibouti and explained how important it is to have a good coach, and I told them that I must go with Jama.”
Souleiman and Aden stayed in touch over the next three years and, following the 2012 World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, they formally began to work with each other.
At the post-event banquet, Aden received a call from the Djibouti minister of sport requesting he take on the country’s budding star. Two weeks later, Aden flew to Djibouti where he met the country’s president and the minister of sport.
Although Jama Aden is officially the national middle-distance coach of Qatar, over the years athletes from other Arabic countries have sent athletes to the Somalia-born, US-educated, British citizen.
Among Souleiman’s training partners are Algeria’s reigning Olympic Games 1500m champion Taoufik Makhloufi and Sudan’s Abubaker Kaki, the two-time world indoor 800m champion.
“It’s a great group with lots of fun,” said Souleiman. “Coach Jama, Ibrahim and Abdi Bile create a good atmosphere. We train hard; we make jokes and the group is very well disciplined.
“Kaki is a great role model and a big brother to all of us. Makhloufi and I train very well together. However, (Qatar's) Musaeb Balla, who ran 1:43.93 last year, is the one who really helped me with speed sessions. He is very fast and that’s the reason I got better in the 800m.
“Jama and the group get along very well. He keeps the group going with lots of jokes, like about his running style and the problems he faced when he went to the USA.
“They tell us Abdi Bile’s old stories about how his English was bad when he went to the US and how hard it was for the first two years.”
Since early December 2013, the group has been training in the thin air of Sululta, a small town outside Addis Ababa. It is located some 2750 metres above sea level.
The high altitude camp has become a staple of Jama Aden’s training methods because there are very few distractions. Other than training, taking meals together and resting, the hotel offers an endless diet of top level football on television. Souleiman himself is a huge Barcelona fan.
Married with an infant daughter, Souleiman takes his responsibilities seriously and admits he misses them when he is away at training camps.
At the same time he says his wife knows this is part of his job. As the eldest of seven children who were orphaned while he was still a young boy, Souleiman has also undertaken the role of benefactor to his siblings too.
His immediate goal is to strike gold at the upcoming World Indoor Championships but Souleiman and his coach Aden have long-term targets.
“My best event will be the 5000m,” he revealed, “and my coach Jama Aden is planning on that. But I will take my time and build my speed for a few years then move up. For now, yes, it’s the 1500m but in Rio it could be 5000m.”
Whichever event Souleiman chooses, there’s no doubt that his compatriots will be behind him wholeheartedly and he intends to give them plenty more to cheer about.
Paul Gains for the IAAF