From the outset, it looks like another typical day in Djibouti City.
Known for providing a military base for superpowers such as the USA, China, and France, Djibouti does not grow much and is known for little else other than a sleeping port country in the horn of Africa. Temperatures have just crept past 34C in the capital, yet the crowd gathered at the Stade Gouled looks undeterred.
But then, the sight of Ayanleh Souleiman suddenly ignites the mood in the stadium where a crowd of about 10,000 have gathered for the first ever Meeting De Djibouti, a Conference of African Athletics (CAA) bronze level one-day track meeting.
As Souleiman is introduced to the crowd by his coach Jama Aden – who is doubling as a technical consultant and bilingual announcer for the meeting – the stadium goes up in rapturous roar.
“This is the first time I am competing in Djibouti since 2010,” says the world indoor 1000m record-holder. “Every time I return to Djibouti on vacation, people stop me on the streets and ask when they will see me run in my own country. Today, I am very happy to fulfil their wishes.”
In the last event of the evening, Souleiman dominates the 1000m to win in 2:21.65, but the upstart nature of the meeting makes the results of little relevance this early in the season. Instead, the focus is more on providing East African athletes – and the local crowd – an experience of top-level athletics.
“Djibouti is a country known for the half marathon and the marathon,” says Aden, who vividly recalls Hassen Ahmed Saleh’s Olympic bronze medal in the marathon at the 1988 Games in Seoul. “They have always had great potential over the track. You can see that by what Ayanleh has done and what the young athletes are doing regionally.”
Tough outing for international elites
Many of the elite athletes who descended on Djibouti for their first outdoor race of the year were beaten by little-known young stars.
Sudan’s two-time world indoor 800m champion Abubaker Kaki, running only his second race in two years, was comfortably beaten to third place in the 1500m by Djibouti’s world junior silver medallist Abdi Waiss Mouhyadin (3:36.67) and Algerian Yassin Hathat (3:38.62).
Ethiopia’s 2011 world 10,000m champion Ibrahim Jeilan could only finish fifth in a 5000m won by Ethiopian-born Sudanese SF Mohammed.
Other athletes, including Sudan’s 2008 Olympic 800m silver medallist Ismail Ahmed Ismail and Ethiopian 3000m steeplechase record-holder Roba Gari, were not even factors in deciding their races.
“I think the meeting will serve as a good experience for the country in how to organise an international meeting,” said Aden. “For the young athletes, it was a good chance to compete against elite athletes and gain experience at the early stage. This is very important for athletes in Djibouti who usually don’t have access to top-level competition.”
One such youngster who took advantage of racing experience was Mohammed Fatah. After falling back during the early stages of the 3000m steeplechase, he hit the front after three laps and never looked back, winning in 8:36.20.
Elshadai Negash for the IAAF
Selected results (all men’s events)
1 Samba Abdurhamane (QAT) 46.02
2 Adan Mohammed (QAT) 47.06
3 Henry Okorie (NGR) 48.38
1 Abubaker Ali Kamal (QAT) 1:47.17
2 Amine Belferar (ALG) 1:48.78
3 Aemero Gezhagne 1:49.24
1 Ayanleh Souleiman (DJI) 2:21.65
2 Ahmed Adan Fathi (SUD) 2:25.34
3 Abdallah Tirgan (SUD) 2:28.04
1 Abdi Waiss Mouhyadin (DJI) 3:36.67
2 Yassin Hathat (ALG) 3:38.62
3 Abubaker Kaki (SUD) 3:39.76
1 SF Mohamed (SUD) 13:43.29
2 Abdi Dirieh Djamal (DJI) 13:52.06
3 Solomon Balega (ETH) 13:52.22
5 Ibrahim Jeilan (ETH) 13:58.54
7 Dawit Wolde (ETH) 13:59.17
1 Mohammed Fatah (DJI) 8:36.20
2 Tesfaye Sima (ETH) 8:37.22
3 Wogene Sebisibe (ETH) 8:37.22