Britain's Mo Farah, a native of Somalia, embraces his daughter Rihanna… (Martin Meissner, Associated…)
MOGADISHU, Somalia — They came to the stadium in late afternoon, a sprinkle of rain mixing with their sweat as they pounded around the rough sand track.
This is Mogadishu and the stadium bears the scars of war, but the gray sky could have been golden. In every runner's heart, it was as if there were another presence in the stadium, running with them: Mo Farah, the first Mogadishu-born athlete to take Olympic gold, in the 10,000-meter final in London.
Although Farah, 29, won for the British team, to everyone in this city, he's a Somali.
Farah's triumph during the weekend, at a time when Somalia is struggling to move out of more than two decades of war and chaos, symbolizes enormous hope for a people yearning for a normal, peaceful land.
"It was the final lap. And there he was, finally emerging to show the world what hard work, patience, discipline and monumental courage can do for a tiny boy from the land of poets," a Somali doctor named Mohamed Gaildon wrote on a Somali Internet chat group, referring to the country's rich oral traditional. "And for a moment the heart of a nation paused, the Somali nation....
"Tonight, the little giant rose to amazing heights. Tomorrow we as a nation can do the same. After all, Farah is our own."
Farah's family fled Somalia when he was young, during the era of dictator Siad Barre, well before the country's 1991 collapse into chaos. He spent most of his early years in Djibouti and arrived in Britain when he was 8.
"We Somalis are short of heroes, to be honest with you," said Jabril Abdulle, director of a Mogadishu nongovernmental organization, the Center for Research and Development, which works with young people.
In Mogadishu, the situation often seems bleak because of the city's shattered infrastructure, lack of resources and uncertain security situation.
"We tried to organize a one-day run, but it was just too hard," Abdulle said of a recent project.
But Farah's win signified other possibilities too, in a country that had been dominated by an extremist Islamic militia, the Shabab, which abandoned the Somali capital a year ago.
Shabab fighters had a way of dropping in to Mogadishu Stadium and telling young athletes they should be fighting a holy war, not running or playing football. Anyone wearing shorts was threatened with a public flogging. Watching sports was forbidden.
And girls didn't run. They were expected to wear niqab (a heavy, body-covering Islamic garment with an eye slit), which impedes even walking.
At Mogadishu's Konis Stadium, a slight, tall young woman circled the track in baggy tracksuit pants, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a head scarf.
"It was very shameful for a woman to run," said Bashir, who lives in a part of Mogadishu the Shabab didn't control and started running seven months before the militants quit the city. A younger girl ran beside her, keeping pace.
Bashir, a basketball player, switched to running when she saw some of the ball players running.
"In the last two months, we have done a lot of work, trained hard, and shown the world," she said, referring to Somalia's two-person Olympic team, which includes a female runner. Bashir tried out for the team, but didn't make it.
"I'm just doing it because I hope to achieve something. I want to be someone in the world like Mo Farah and [former world champion runner] Abdi Bille. I'm trying to follow in his footsteps and I hope to be like him.
"I feel great when I'm running, because I believe that it's my future."
When Farah won the 10,000-meter race in London, Bashir, watching at home, was so overjoyed that she jumped around the room.
Yet finding her natural rhythm when running isn't easy. Watching her slog around the track in her faded purple running shoes, it looked like hard work, a world away from the leonine power of athletes such as America's Sanya Richards-Rossor Carmelita Jeter.
Watching the Olympic Games on television, Bashir said, she sometimes feels a twinge of envy for the resources, training and support that Western athletes get.
"Running is not an easy thing to do," she said. "Some days, you can't run too much, because you feel exhausted. Sometimes when you run too fast, you can lose control and your heart is beating so fast.
"Once, I was running, trying to do my best and I collapsed. I came to and people were splashing water on my face."
Even today, some Somalis warn Bashir that it's against Islam for women to run. Others just say that she and other female runners are mad.
"When we are running, some people say, 'Those women are crazy. What do they think they're doing?'
"But others say, 'One day you will carry our flag.'"