Gopher sprinter’s Olympic quest comes to last-minute halt just short of the starting line

BEIJING — This city’s infamous haze returned after a weekend of much-discussed blue skies. Monday noon, Beijing was a gauzy steam room, 90 degrees with 70 percent humidity and a low sky of dirty white.

A person could stand still and quickly watch his sweat soak through his shirt.

It’s the kind of weather that University of Minnesota track and field standout Ibrahim Kabia enjoys. It was the sort of climate the native of Sierra Leone was looking forward to competing in at the Olympics.

But Kabia, who was all packed to come here, who had all the forms and all the dreams, won’t be running in Beijing. He got an email the other day that pulled the rug out from under his swift feet.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said, his voice strong over the telephone 13 time zones away.

He received a notice from the Sierra Leone Athletic Association late last week declaring it was only going to take athletes who lived in the nation. Kabia’s family fled seven years ago, racing from the decade-long civil war.

They asked him
Odd and sad.

Odd because it was the country’s athletic body that reached out to him about two months ago and invited Kabia, soon to be a ‘U’ senior, to compete in China. Somehow, track officials there had seen a remarkable story in the Star Tribune by Roman Augustoviz about Kabia’s life and career.

Ibrahim Kabia
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Athletics Department
Ibrahim Kabia

“They called me and asked me to go,” said Kabia, 22, who was separated from his mother for six years during Sierra Leone’s civil war.

Sad, because he’s been imagining competing in China for Sierra Leone since he was in high school and sad because he’s been training for Beijing pretty much full time this summer. He’s been taking an “American Pop Culture and Politics” class but opted not to get a summer job to prepare for Beijing.

“I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life,” said the reigning Big Ten 100-meter champ with a time of 10.29.

Just 10 days ago, Kabia and I chatted about how much he looked forward to competing for Sierra Leone. He’s still a citizen of the country. But I could tell there was some doubt about the administration of all this. There was some inexplicable hangup.

“If everything works out well, I’ll be leaving on the fifth [of August],” he told me then.

“If?” I asked.

There was an issue with forms and approval from, he thought, the Chinese organizing committee. And no one had bought his airline ticket yet. 

“But I’m hoping,” he said then.

Somehow it fell apart.

Kabia called new Gophers coach Steve Plasencia, a two-time Olympian, who was helping him prepare.

“He just told me that I’ve been through worse situations, that this shouldn’t get to me,” said Kabia. “There’s nothing I can do. I’m not in tears.”

But this Gopher is staying home. And it’s sad.

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