one man’s journey to Olympic competition
echoes the world’s trek to the Games
By Eryn Mathewson Published July 22, 2021
The extraordinary journey to Tokyo 2020
The distance of a marathon is 26.2 miles. As we go through US marathon runner Abdihakim “Abdi” Abdirahman’s road to Tokyo, we tick off the milestones and myriad challenges for competitors and organizers to reach this year’s Games.
The Tokyo Olympics are finally happening and Abdihakim “Abdi” Abdirahman is ready — despite new rules, no fans, and many protests against hosting the Games during a pandemic.
He’s sympathetic to concerns about keeping residents, athletes and their support staff safe during the massive 16-day event.
He also really wants to compete in the marathon — the race he’s been training for, for over a year. Qualifying for the Games was hard, and staying healthy and in shape during a pandemic was arguably even harder.
‘A safe and secure Olympic Games’ In September 2013 — following a vote in Buenos Aires, Argentina — Tokyo was chosen as the host of the 2020 Olympics ahead of Istanbul and Madrid. It will be the second time that Tokyo has hosted the Summer Games, having previously done so in 1964. A large crowd watching at an outdoor screen in Tokyo cheered when the announcement was made at 5:20 a.m. local time, and then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged that the city would stage “a safe and secure Olympic Games.”
But Abdirahman will tell you it was all worth it. This will be his fifth trip to the Olympics, and at 44, it could be his last.
“It’s been a difficult time … I’m just going to go out there and give it my best. I’m just going to worry about what I can control,” Abdirahman tells CNN.
A new normalThe pandemic is likely to make it his most unique Games. Everything — from the way he trained to the way the Games are being coordinated — is a bit different from years past. In a typical year, Abdirahman and the rest of the US Olympic marathon team would head to training camp in Japan weeks in advance to acclimatize to the terrain and weather.
Abraham Majok Matet Guem Since November 2019, South Sudanese athlete Abraham Majok Matet Guem has been living and training in the Japanese city of Maebashi in Gunma prefecture — about a two-hour drive from Tokyo. The 1,500m runner is one of four athletes from South Sudan, along with a coach, who have been based in Japan in the build-up to the Games. The athletes have gotten to know Maebashi residents, sampled the local fare and attended Japanese and computer classes four times a week. Maebashi is also offering financial support to the athletes through t-shirt sales and donations by local businesses.
“I’m doing it for my country, not for myself. I want to bring peace in my country.”
AFP/Getty Images/CNN Illustration
But the pandemic and concerns over safety will keep Team USA at home up until about a week before the race. Abdirahman said he’ll arrive in Tokyo in late July.
Japan’s capital is under a state of emergency because of rising Covid rates, so he and roughly 11,000 other athletes will be subject to a range of strict protocols that limit socializing, physical touch and travel between all 42 Olympic venues.
“I don’t look at age as ‘you’re old … you can’t do this.’ It’s just a number.” I don’t look at age as “you’re old …you can’t do this.” Age is just a number. You know, just as long as you believe in yourself and you put the work and dedication, why not?
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Athletes have also been asked to embrace artificial crowd noise because live spectators are not allowed. Chanting, high fives and hugs have been banned, while mask-wearing will be required unless sleeping, eating, training or competing. Athletes from countries severely impacted by the Delta variant will be subject to stricter surveillance before they arrive and after they leave Tokyo. A handful have tested positive within the Olympic village so far.
Being vaccinated for Covid-19 is not mandatory for athletes. Pfizer/BioNTech pledged to donate its vaccine, but it’s unclear how many athletes have actually received the shots. Only about 23% of Japan’s 126 million residents have been fully vaccinated, but government officials are pushing to increase this number before the Games begin.
A view of Sapporo Odori Park — venue for the Olympic Marathon and Race Walking events — is seen on November 7, 2019. The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images
The men’s Olympic marathon is scheduled for August 8, the last day of the Games. If all goes according to plan, athletes will run the 26.2-mile race in Sapporo — a hot and humid city that sits about 500 miles north of Tokyo, near the tip of Japan. It was chosen to host the marathon over Tokyo because its temperatures are slightly cooler.
The race will start in Sapporo’s Odori Park and then lead runners into the city to follow a three-loop course. Race walking events will also take place there, despite concerns and frustrations from city officials who don’t feel prepared to provide Covid-related health facilities or staffing for athletes and their delegations.
The marathon has been an official Olympic event since the first iteration of the Games took place in 776 BC. The inspiration for the race stems from a mythic run from Marathon to Athens, Greece in 490 BC. Legend has it that a professional messenger named Pheidippides ran the 40-kilometer distance to deliver a message: the Greek Army had defeated the Persian Army.
Runners line up for the marathon during the Antwerp Summer Olympics on August 22, 1920 in Antwerp, Belgium. The following year, the 26.2-mile distance was made official. The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images
The marathon was resurrected when Baron Pierre de Coubertin established the modern Olympic Games in 1896. Just over 20 men lined up at the start, but only nine ended up finishing the race. The winning time was 2:58:50 — almost an hour slower than the current men’s world record. The 26.2-mile distance was made official in 1921.
When Abdirahman gets to the starting line, over 100 other competitors are expected to be there with him.
From cellphones to Olympic medals In July 2019, exactly one year out from the original opening ceremony, the Tokyo 2020 medals were revealed. Melded from copper and zinc found in donated cellphones and other electronics, the medals have a pebble-like appearance and measure 8.5 cm in diameter. Then in December that year, Tokyo’s 68,000-seat National Stadium was inaugurated. It cost 157 billion yen ($1.4 billion) and is scheduled to host the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics and Paralympics, as well as football matches and track-and-field events during the Games.
It will mark the last leg of a journey that he started in February 2020. That’s when he and the other five members of Team USA’s Olympic marathon team qualified for the Tokyo Games. Galen Rupp and Jacob Riley are on the men’s team, and Aliphine Tuliamuk, Molly Seidel and Sally Kipyego are representing the women.
The road to Tokyo’s Olympic villageAbdirahman was hardly a shoo-in going into the Olympic Trials; he was seeded 12th. But he was able to surpass top runners to finish third behind Riley and winner Rupp. “It was a hard race. When I crossed the finish line, I was relieved,” Abdirahman reflected in a 2020 interview.
With a time of 2:10:03, Abdirahman sealed his spot on the US Olympic team for the fifth time. He was 43 then, which not only made him the elder statesman on the 2020 US Olympic marathon team, but the oldest American runner ever to qualify for an Olympic marathon. Now 44, Abdirahman is also the oldest American runner to make an Olympic team.
“I don’t look at age as ‘you’re old, you can’t do this.’ Age is just a number. Just as long as you believe in yourself and you put in the work and dedication, why not?” he says.
A deep drive to compete and do his best, an undeniable love of running and an unwavering belief in his talent have helped Abdirahman maintain a professional running career of just over two decades. He describes himself as the type of person who pushes boundaries, especially when someone tells him he can’t accomplish something. But that hasn’t quieted critics who have used message boards and social media to suggest his performance and career is on the decline.
A mystery virus emerges On December 31, 2019, cases of an unknown viral pneumonia in Wuhan, China, are first reported to the World Health Organization. The cases occurred between December 12 and December 29, according to Wuhan Municipal Health, but the virus was unknown at the time. On January 7, Chinese authorities identify the virus as a novel coronavirus, and four days later, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announces the first death caused by the coronavirus.
“To be honest, if I thought I could not compete with those guys, I would not have come to the [Olympic] Trials,” he says. “I wouldn’t waste my time. But … I knew what I was capable of.”
Abdi Abdirahman reacts after finishing in third place during the Men’s US Olympic marathon team Trials on February 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Abdirahman is not the oldest Olympic athlete to ever run the marathon. Israel’s Seteng Ayele was 46 when he competed in the 2008 Games and Bohumil Honzatko was 49 when he ran for Czechoslovakia in 1924.
Ryo Miyake After the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, Ryo Miyake, a Japanese fencer, saw his sporting career put on hold. Instead, he took up a new job delivering food for Uber Eats. A silver medalist at London 2012, Miyake turned to Uber Eats as a way to make extra cash and stay in shape during the pandemic. But the postponement of the Games proved to be a mental challenge, too. “It’s been very difficult. After all, the Olympics are like God, an absolute existence for athletes,” Miyake told CNN earlier this year. “It’s like running a full marathon for four years … adding another year is like we have to keep on running before reaching the goal.”
“Adding another year … we have to keep on running before reaching the goal.”
AFP/Getty Images/CNN Illustration
According to the US’ National Institutes of Health, after the age of 40, elite distance runners start to lose muscle fibers and slow down. But the global pandemic and an ankle injury, more likely than age, posed the greatest challenges to Abdirahman.
In March, just a few weeks after the Trials, most sporting events around the world and in the US came to a halt.
The NBA suspended its season, Major League Baseball postponed spring training, and eventually, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were delayed by a year. Abdirahman agreed with the decision.
“There are more important things in life than just the Games,” he says. “The Games will go on if life gets back to normal, and life wasn’t normal.”
The postponement cost Olympic organizers, sponsors and broadcasters billions of dollars. Athletes were affected, too — financially, emotionally and physically. Over the next several months, most of the major marathons — Boston, New York City and Chicago — were canceled. Access to facilities and teammates was limited and training schedules were prolonged. Without any races or training camps on the horizon, most professional runners lost out on significant sources of income.
An Olympic flame out The lighting ceremony of the Olympic flame took place in Olympia, Greece, on March 12. Due to concerns over coronavirus transmission, the audience was kept small. The relay, scheduled to travel to all 47 prefectures of Japan over 121 days from March 26, was suspended the next day amid coronavirus concerns.
Abdirahman, who is based in Tucson, AZ, said he had to rely on money he received from his Nike sponsorship contract and his personal savings to make ends meet.
Abdirahman trains in Eugene, Oregon, on June 20. Jasper Colt/USA TODAY
He also had to adjust training timelines and routines. At first, Abdirahman ran fewer miles than normal — just enough to stay in shape. The members of his international training group, the Mudane Team, canceled a training trip to Arizona.
Eventually, he returned to the training program he learned from his coach and mentor of over 20 years, Dave Murray. “I know Abdi in and out,” Murray tells CNN. “I know what’s good for him in terms of training. We’ve been with him so long that I don’t really need to coach him. I said, ‘Abdi, just do what we’ve been doing.’ And he knows exactly what I’m talking about.”
Murray’s training regimen is based on his philosophy of simplicity, consistency and capping Abdirahman’s weekly mileage to help prevent injury. Abdirahman logs only about 100 miles per week, which is low for elite runners. To hit this number, he runs almost every day — including long runs (20 miles or more) at the weekend and speed work on the track. Weight training is also part of the routine.
Sandi Morris and Tyrone Smith For husband and wife Sandi Morris and Tyrone Smith, the postponement of the Olympics was like being thrown into “purgatory.” Morris, a pole vaulter from the United States, and Smith, a long jumper from Bermuda, were forced to navigate a year of uncertainty when it came to their athletic careers, all while living and training in different parts of the US. For Smith, who is close to calling time on his athletic career, the postponement was hard to take. “I probably experienced some mild depression once that announcement came,” he told CNN earlier this year. “It was disheartening, gutting, all those words, and it took some soul-searching for me to decide: am I able to continue to do this for another year?” Smith ultimately fell just short of his bid to qualify for a fourth Olympics, while Morris will look to add to her silver medal from the 2016 Olympics in Tokyo.
“It was disheartening, gutting, all those words, and it took some soul-searching for me to decide: am I able to continue to do this for another year?”
NurPhoto/Getty Images/CNN Illustration
The start of two beautiful friendshipsAbdirahman was born in Hargeisa, Somalia and says he was 16 years old when he moved with his family to the US to escape the Somali Civil war.
He didn’t start running until 1995. He was 18 and had just entered Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. His interest in track sparked from a desire to be social, not athletic.
“A lot of my friends were in junior college and they were doing sports,” he recalls. “So I was always the last guy at the cafeteria when everybody goes to practice. And I just figured … maybe when they go to practice, I can go to practice, too … So I just wanted to fit in with the boys.”
He first met Murray in 1997. Abdirahman was running for Pima and Murray was an assistant coach for the University of Arizona. After watching Abdirahman run a few times, Murray decided to recruit him.
Abdirahman runs in the men’s 10,000 meter final of the 2000 Olympics on September 25, 2000 in the Olympic Stadium in Sydney, Australia. David Madison/Getty Images
“He was not any kind of a great runner in terms of scholarship material, but there was just something about him that I liked,” says Murray, now 79. Abdirahman’s times in the 10,000K and 5,000m were respectable but not jaw-dropping. Murray says he was running around 31 minutes and 15 minutes for each distance respectively.
The making of the ‘Black Cactus’Abdihakim “Abdi” Abdirahman is a 44-year-old distance runner from the United States.Born in Hargeisa, Somalia, Abdirahman moved to the United States as a teenager. He attended Pima Community College in Tucson, AZ, and the University of Arizona.Tokyo 2020 will be Abdirahman’s fifth Olympics. He competed in the 10,000m in 2000, 2004 and 2008 — placing 10th, 15th and 15th respectively — and the marathon in 2012, where he failed to finish due to knee injuries. Ahead of the 2016 Olympics, he missed out on qualifying with another injury.A four-time national champion in the 10,000m (2001, 2005, 2007, 2008), his personal best over the distance is 27:16:99. In the marathon, he has run a best of 2:08:56.He’s nicknamed “the Black Cactus,” a reference to the Arizona landscape.Abdirahman is known for his easy-goin
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