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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Abdi - the Olympics a matter of life and death

Abdi - the Olympics a matter of life and death

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Abdi running for his life
Michael Gleeson
The Age
February 4, 2012

Leap of faith: Youcef Abdi competes for Australia in a heat of the 3000 metres steeplechase at the World Championships in South Korea last year.

IN 1996, Algerian Youcef Abdi had 24 hours to decide. One day to make up his mind about where to spend the rest of his life. One day to escape.

Abdi was in an Algerian military training camp in the desert. He was meant to be in a camp for elite athletes but a foul-up had him sent to a combat camp where he was to train to fight terrorists. He tried to explain the mix-up and asked to be moved to the right camp.

''No. Nobody wants to be here,'' came the reply.

Once training began the next day there would be a strict campaign with no contact with the outside world for the next six months.

''Basically I had a limited time to get out of the country and Australia was the only place I had a visa to go [having competed at the world youth athletics championship several months earlier] … I had no time, I had just 24 hours before I got caught,'' Abdi said.

''So the only way for me was to run away and I ended up jumping the fence and running away and getting out of the country.''

The teenager arrived in Australia with $700 in his pocket and a small bag of clothes under his arm. He knew no one, didn't know where to go or what to do.

He went to the motel where the Algerian team had stayed during the youth games, the Ibis in Sydney's Darling Harbour. ''I wanted to spend at least a week until I got myself sorted and it was about $150 or $180 or something a night and I only had $700,'' Abdi recalled.

''I had to tell the receptionist I had other plans and would not stay a week. I was so ashamed. I stayed the night but did not sleep very well.

''The following day I went to the city and found another place, it was $29 a night. So I stayed there a bit and I stayed on the beach for a few nights.''

He met another Algerian who put him up at his house for six months and helped him find a job as a trolley pusher earning $5 an hour.

''Most of Youcef's English was learnt from other guys pushing trolleys so you can imagine the colourful words he learnt first,'' said training partner Ben St Laurence. ''Even now something happens and he says, 'Shit, man'.''

For two years all Abdi did was work to survive. Training to be an elite athlete had to wait. He waited, but never gave up the dream of running and competing. His life has been one of running for his life.

A good soccer player as a teenager - he had gone to school in France with superstar Thierry Henry - he fell into running only after joining in runs through the forest as his brother trained for the school cross-country team.

Their village was in a volatile area and the forest was a dangerous place to go. His brother felt vulnerable and scared to run alone. So Abdi joined him. Those runs became like the joke between two people confronting a lion in the jungle: ''Can you outrun a lion?'' ''No, but I only need to outrun you.'' Abdi learnt to run fast.

''I started to be able to keep up with him because I was scared myself. You go through a forest and I can't see my brother because he is 200, 300 metres ahead of me, so I had to run fast to try and catch him,'' he said.

''Eventually I got better and started to run with him and I started to be ahead of him and then he introduced me to his coach.''

Within six months he was in the Algerian national team and off to run in Spain, then Australia at the worlds. Soon enough he was back here having fled Algeria with two goals in mind: make a better life and run at the Olympics.

He failed to make the Olympics in Sydney in 2000, or Athens in 2004. It shattered him.

Training partner Collis Birmingham recalled their coach and manager Nic Bideau speaking with Abdi at an Olympic qualifying meet in Sweden before the Beijing Games. ''He asked Youcef, 'How important is it for you to make the Olympics?' and Youcef said, 'Life and death'.''

A 1500-metres runner - he won bronze at Manchester in the Commonwealth Games - he switched to the steeplechase in 2004 after missing out on the team for Athens. Somehow the steeplechase suited him better - he has been running and clearing large hurdles all his life.

He made the final in Beijing, finishing sixth in a personal best time. He hopes to be on the podium in London.

''I don't think I could live with myself if I didn't get to the Olympics, just because I sacrificed so much. So the Olympics was life and death for me, that is true,'' he said.

When he ran for Australia in Beijing it was big news in Algeria.

The political situation in Algeria has changed and he has been able to return there. What confronts him when he does is a reminder of what he gave up but also what he was able to make of his life on the other side of the world.

Friends his age who finished university degrees are working in dead-end jobs earning $30 a month, unable to use their degrees.

''It justifies the sacrifices I made and the choices I made to leave,'' Abdi said. ''Now when I return home I am glad of the choices I made.''

Youcef Abdi won the steeplechase in Adelaide last week at the national tour meet and will run in Hobart today. He will compete in Melbourne at the Melbourne Track Classic and Olympic qualifiers on March 2-3.

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