Otmane Nait-Hammou admits that his present relationship with the 3000m steeplechase wasn’t exactly love at first sight. But over time, the Athlete Refugee Team member says his admiration for the event has grown to represent the strongest imaginable metaphor for life.
“I see it as a challenge,” the 25-year-old said. “It’s not just a race. The steeplechase is not just obstacles for me. It is my life, my history. It’s something special for me. I love it.”
On some levels, his history is a complicated one. But on others, particularly during a time when more of the world’s people are displaced than at any time before, it’s not.
In its annual Global Trends report issued earlier this week, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, reported that 79.5 million people were living as refugees at the end of 2019, an unprecedented number.
Nait-Hammou has been among those faceless millions since he made the difficult decision to leave his homeland in 2015 for what he describes as a host of complicated and private reasons which finally conspired to force him into a search of a place where he simply "better fits". He ultimately found that through sport, part of a journey that landed him on the World Championships start line last year - next to a reigning Olympic champion.
‘I really feel that I fit well with running, with sport’
Nait-Hammou came to athletics later than most. Born and raised in Tafraout in south-central Morocco, he didn’t take up running until 2012 at 17, at the urging of a friend. His passion for the sport grew but academics took priority at the time. He studied French Literature for two years at a university in Morocco, studies he hoped to continue in France in 2015. But once there, he knew he could no longer go home and chose to apply for asylum.
Although he found himself alone and oftentimes in difficult straits, he never gave up running. Later that year he joined the ES Sartouville Club just outside of Paris where he crossed paths with Nuno Graziani, who remains his coach to this day.
"I really feel that I fit well with running, with sport," Nait-Hammou said. So he forged on.
He moved to Sweden in 2016 to try his luck there. That summer, he and Fouad Idbafdil, another Moroccan seeking asylum who would later join him on the World Championships squad, watched members of the Refugee Olympic Team competing at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, from a refugee centre near Kalmar, Sweden. The memories remain vivid.
“I told Fouad, 'Look, we're refugees, right? Look, our brothers and sisters are representing us at the Olympics’. It was amazing. They gave us hope. We believed that one day we could be on the team, too.”
That day would come, but not without more work. He moved to Stockholm where he met local distance running standout Napoleon Solomon, an 8:24 steeplechaser. The two became fast friends, Solomon’s mother a second mom to Nait-Hammou. He balanced running with a full-time job at an athletics centre, but steadily grew faster.
By the end of 2018 he improved over a range of distances, clocking 8:35.79 indoors over 3000m, 30:40 for 10km on the roads and even tried a local half marathon in Linkoping, finishing fourth albeit in a modest 1:11:27. Solomon even goaded him into trying the steeplechase.
“He said, ‘come on try it, you've got long legs’. And I said, 'No, I don't want to die! I've suffered enough as a refugee, I don't want to die in this steeplechase’. Then I tried it, and it was not so bad. I took it as a challenge.”
He clocked 9:34.55, a debut that put him just inside the world top 1000 that year, in spot 999. All things considered, not a bad start.
His Athlete Refugee Team debut came the following year at the World Cross Country Championships where he finished 134th on the notoriously difficult Aarhus course.
Doha-bound - ‘I had to reach the finish line’
In the meantime, his improvement continued. He lowered his 10km best to 30:27, but more notable was his progress in the steeplechase. In his first outing of the season, he lowered his best to 9:22.28 in a race in Sollentuna then dipped under nine minutes for the first time in his next, clocking 8:58.71. That performance punched his ticket to Doha and a second Athlete Refugee Team appearance.
Arriving on the heels of a 30:16 10km PB, he was in the best shape of his life. And once there, he stood out. If you watched the opening round of the steeplechase, you’d have seen his waves to the crowd, his hand-heart gestures for the photographers, his wide smile.
“That was so emotional, it's really hard to describe,” he said of the wait in the call room prior to his race.
“I was crying from happiness. I was seeing all the obstacles I had in my life, from Morocco to Sweden. Everyone who's known me since I began running in 2012 knew that my great dream was to be on the start line with these great runners like Conseslus Kipruto. And he was here, sitting next to me.
“It was a crazy feeling - that it was just a dream and that maybe I'd wake up. That it wasn't true. But it was. I thought about difficult times, about all the people that helped me, that believed in me, that supported me.”
Then he fell - crashing to the track after a collision with Ethiopian runner Takele Nigate on the race’s first lap.
“I watched that a thousand times,” he says with a smile. “That's never happened to me before. We were running really close and we collided.”
He was stunned momentarily, but quickly picked himself up. It was, after all, just another obstacle. More would certainly come. He kept on running and finished the race in just over 9:30, well over a minute behind Kipruto.
“I wanted to give hope to the refugees who are in difficult situations,” he said. “If they were watching me - maybe they see this refugee guy fall. But then he got back up and finished. I was thinking that I had to reach the finish line. I have to do everything. I am a fighter. I'm not here for fun. I must finish.”
The Olympic year approaches
Moving on from the tumble, Nait-Hammou stayed busy post-Doha. He earned a Level 1 coaching certificate at a World Athletics course in Minsk, decided to relocate from Stockholm to the smaller southern city of Västervik - “It’s less stress than the city” - and was named to the IOC’s 49-member refugee team roster for the Tokyo 2020 Games. That included a scholarship that covered basic living and training expenses.
“That changed my life,” he says. “That relaxed me. I didn't have to worry about economic difficulties. Now, I say, ‘you must just concentrate on your goal. You have one year to concentrate on the Olympics.’”
What was to be his Olympic season started well. He improved to 8:27.25 over 3000m indoors on 25 January and the next day finished third in the Ile de France regional cross-country championships.
He was planning to compete at both the World Athletics Indoor Championships in Nanning and the World Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland, in March, a double he and Refugee Team manager Rotem Genosar decided was doable. "We said we can take it as a challenge and then see what happens."
Then everything came to a halt with the global coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
“We were planning to go for a good time for a second 3000m race indoors but then everything was cancelled.”
Nait-Hammou took it in stride, but admits it wasn’t easy.
“To be honest, I was depressed in the beginning. I couldn’t do my training programme as we had planned. And I couldn’t get together with friends. So it was a hard situation. But this athletics experience has given me patience.” And plenty of motivation.
“Honestly, I'm used to suffering,” he says, again with a smile. “For me, one year is nothing. It's just one year. It will be a good season with the World Indoor Championships next year and then the Olympics. I'm positive and I'm optimistic.”
And he’s thankful, too, to World Athletics for providing the opportunities to compete at the highest levels, to the IOC for its financial support, to apparel sponsor On.
“I can’t put into words how grateful I am to all three. They make our dreams come true.
“They give us hope to integrate into society, not just into running.”
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics