Mami Konneh Lahun | Running for Life

Mami Konneh Lahun takes off in this photo shot in Freetown just before the 2013 Sierra Leone Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Nina deVries DWN)

When Mami Konneh Lahun ran the prized London Marathon last week, she raised the profile of Sierra Leone as the nation’s first woman to run in the long-distance event with more than 30,000 people from around the world.

No one seems to know when the 24-year-old started running or what she was aiming for when she did. We do know she feels happy when she runs because she’s always in front. She won the 2013 Sierra Leone Marathon. No doubt, it’s in her DNA. It takes stamina and guts to go the distance in a 5000-meter run, 10,000 metres, or a 26.2 mile-course, and build a track record.

Last week, Mami,  an unknown and unrecognized marathon winner from Sierra Leone, stepped on to the world stage and succeeded in crossing the finish line in 2 hours 46 minutes--20th position in the women’s race. Mami competed with the best in class and excelled because she believed in herself. It  takes grit and confidence.

Now her friends and manager, Jo Dunlop, say they fear she is throwing away her chance of happiness and success, reports The Observer-The Guardian Saturday. Gabriella Jozwiak and Mark Townsend write that having established the missing runner is safe, many worry Sierra Leone has lost a much-needed heroine.

But Idrissa Kargbo, Sierra Leone's top male runner, who ran in London and in the New York City Marathon at the end of 2013, also told the paper, "Athletes train every day, but they have nothing to eat. They have to go to friends to beg. If the government was sponsoring athletics, this would not happen."

Mami’s coach, Jimmy Wright, told Nina deVries last year that the biggest challenge was getting government to show support for long distance running.  In a separate interview, Ishmail Al-Sankoh Conteh, deputy minister of sports, assured deVries work had already begun. Conteh said a plan had been established with the goal of gaining more financial support for sports such as long distance and sprint running.  

Almost a year later, the ministry is still quiet on just what those plans are.

Kargbo, who finished the London marathon in 61st place and has since returned to Freetown,  told Saturday’s Observer that the local press had not reported his or Lahun's success in London.

The papers that have paid attention focused on Lahun’s disappearance.

“News about a Sierra Leonean female athlete who went missing after finishing in 20th position in the London Marathon is shameful, disgraceful, [and] unpatriotic!” screamed one editorial.

“It is exactly this type of absconding by many Sierra Leonean athletes, footballers and others that is responsible for the dismally poor and depreciating status of athletics, football and other sporting activities in the country, ” they scolded.

Vandy Kanyoko, who holds a Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution from Virginia's George Mason University where he is currently teaching, takes a long view.

“As damaging as it is for the image of the country, we are by no means the worst offenders.  That honor goes to the Cubans who defect by the planeload. While Sierra Leonean athletes choose where to 'disappear' (almost always at meets in the West), athletes from places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uganda, Cameroon, to name just a few, are repeat offenders who seemingly vanish anywhere and everywhere including in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America," Kanyoko said.

“According to sport historian David Wallechinsky,  the chances of being granted asylum are high for such athletes. As embarrassing as it is for the countries concerned, it is a tried and tested method that responds to a very basic human need: Self-preservation.”


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