In the world’s current political climate, Mohammed Ahmed has become accustomed to hassles at airport customs counters.
So when he was scheduled to run the 3,000 metres in the prestigious Doha Diamond League track meet in early May, Canada’s top distance runner made a point of being at the Portland airport a good two hours early.
As it turned out, two hours wouldn’t be nearly enough. Ahmed, who is Muslim, was flagged at security and his flight left without him, grounding any chance he had of racing in the Diamond League Final on Aug. 24 in Zurich, and costing him immeasurable experience and exposure.
“He’s losing something, but there’s no way to really quantify it,” said his manager Dan Lilot of Aurum Sports Group. “The winner of that race will get $50,000 (US). I’m not saying he’s going to win that race, I think he could place fairly well. But it’s more that he’s missing out on the opportunity to compete against the best in the world… and cement his international reputation as one of the best in the world.”
The 26-year-old will face the best at the world track and field championships that open Friday in London, as part of a Canadian team aiming to top the record-eight medals won in 2015 in Beijing. News on Thursday that star sprinter Andre De Grasse will miss the meet due to injury deals that goal a major blow.
Ahmed will toe the line with one less race under his belt against British star Mo Farah & Co., thanks to his missed opportunity in Doha. And because he’s raced just one meet on the Diamond League circuit — the Prefontaine Classic — he doesn’t have enough points to race in the final.
Ahmed ran to a thrilling fourth in the 5,000 metres at last summer’s Rio Olympics, Canada’s best-ever finish in the distance. But he’s learned that “Olympian” means zilch when it comes to border security.
“I’ve always had to deal with people thinking I’m some sort of terrorist or something,” Ahmed said at last month’s Canadian championships. “It’s tough, especially being young and you know you didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve tried to be as patient as I could, but you’re going to come across people who push buttons that they really shouldn’t be pushing.”
Ahmed was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, one of the countries on U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban list. The name “Mohammed,” or various versions of it, is also believed to be the most common name in the world.
Doha was the first meet Ahmed had missed because of security problems.
“Usually it’s an inconvenience — and insulting and degrading, in my opinion,” Lilot said. “I was joking with him saying ‘You should wear your Pan Am Games gold medal, or have a folder of all the media coverage of you, that shows that you’re one of the best athletes in the world.’”
Ahmed’s younger brother Ibrahim, an NCAA distance runner who ran for Southern Utah before capping his college year this past season at Florida State, has had his own travel headaches. He was flying to Tallahassee, Fla., last summer from Buffalo, and despite leaving himself a five-hour window to get to Buffalo from St. Catharines, Ont., he was flagged at the Peace Bridge border crossing, where he spent more than four hours and missed his flight.
Ibrahim wasn’t as patient as Mohammed when he’d heard his brother had missed his Diamond League meet.
“It’s frustrating, it hinders his ability to do his job, which is the worst part,” Ibrahim said.
The Doha meet featured the 3,000 metres, and Ahmed was on pace to add the Canadian record in that distance to the one he already owns in the 5,000. He couldn’t race the other two Diamond League meets that feature the 3K/5K runners because of a scheduling conflict with the Canadian championships.
After missing his flight, Ahmed hopped instead on a plane to California to race the 10,000 at the Payton Jordan meet.
“If there’s a silver lining in that dark cloud,” Lilot said, Ahmed ran the qualifying standard for both the world championships and Commonwealth Games in that race.
He’ll race both the 5,000 and 10,000 in London, opening with the 10K on Day 1 of the meet.
Ahmed, who spent the first 10 years of his life in Kenya before his family moved to St. Catharines, said narrowly missing the Olympic podium in Rio was heartbreaking.
“I watched it afterwards and I just wanted to break my computer,” he said. “I said to myself ‘You’re going to medal.’ And sometimes when you vividly picture it, and in your heart you say ‘OK, I’m going to do it,’ and you don’t do it, it’s sort of a shock. It was tough, but hopefully I can medal (in London).”
Despite the disappointment, his narrow miss proved he could run with the world’s best.
“I remember finishing the race, I thought ‘I feel like a different athlete already,’” he said. “I’ve never been there (with the leaders) with 150 to go, 200 metres to go…to run that hard, especially in a fast race, it’s just the experience. It’s a little bit of belief. Rubbing elbows with guys like Mo Farah, and the best of East Africa, it’s an experience you don’t forget, and it definitely forces you to say: OK, think big.”