March 2001 | Archive | View images | © Seamus Murphy
reportage Still training
The seeds of Seamus Murphy's story on the Sierra Leone Olympics team have an unlikely origin. Before the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, he went to Afghanistan and photographed an Afghan boxer who was the only athlete from that isolated country to qualify for the Games. Tragically, this boxer was disqualified when, overwhelmed by the size and scale of Atlanta, he took the wrong bus and arrived late for his contest.

So, when Murphy managed to infiltrate his way into Sierra Leone in a helicopter in May 2000, courtesy of Medecins Sans Frontieres, and on a magazine assignment to cover the news, he naturally started looking around for an another unusual story.

He was travelling with the journalist Alex Duval Smith and the two of them came across a group of athletes training in the National Stadium of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. While the rest of the world looked on appalled at the atrocities carried out in the vicious civil war raging inside the country, Murphy and Duval Smith decided to concentrate on this group of brave competitors pursuing their dream of marching behind the blue, white and green national flag at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics later in the year.

The dozen or so men and women of Sierra Leone's athletic team were prepared to face not only economic hardship but also to distance themselves from the huge mental and emotional toll of one of the world's most brutal wars, just to have the privilege of appearing at the Olympics.

Fighting in the small West African country has raged for nine years. If is fuelled by greed for the world's finest diamonds, and it has claimed thousands of lives. Innocent citizens have been the principal targets of ragtag militias and rebels, including the Revolutionary United Front, for whom terror is power. In frenzied amputation attacks, at least 10,000 men, women, children and infants have been left with stumps and scars where they used to have hands, feet, ears and lips.

It was against such a background that Lamin Tucker, a 100 metre sprinter, fled Bo in the east of the country to come and live with a dozen other athletes in a changing room in Freetown's National Satdium. They have one cold-water tap, no electricity, and they rely on charity to provide them with a meal a day; if they're lucky, it even includes meat. The 10.48 seconds which it takes Tucker to cover 100m would have been fast enough to get him to Sydney. Tucker is lucky, he has managed to buy a second-hand pair of spike shoes. But the National Stadium does not have a working clock; the athletics coach, Joseph O'Reilly-Campbell, just has a hand-held stopwatch.

"These athletes face huge hurdles - from what they have seen, what they and their families have been through and because they must work so hard towards a goal which may not materialise because of the economic realities," says O'Reilly-Campbell. "Here in the stadium we have pitifully little - no video camera or recorder, one shotput, one high-jump crossbar, one men's discus. All but two of the javelins were used as firewood by refugees who came and lived in the stadium when the rebels attacked Freetown in January last year."

Sadly, in the event, the athletes didn't make it to Sydney. Already weakened by their poor conditions, they were involved in a traffic accident in Mali on the way to a qualifying event in Algiers. As a result, they arrived in too bad a shape to perform well enough to qualify for the Olympics.

More optimistic news has recently emerged from Sierra Leone - the team is still together and training in the National Stadium of Freetown. The athletes and their coach are now determined to represent their country in front of an international audience at a major world sports event. For them, sport has become a symbol of endurance and hope which binds them together in face of the dangerous and volatile politics of their country.
The coach, Joseph O'Reilly-Campbell, would be happy to hear from anyone interested in supporting or helping his team. For further information, please contact him via E-mail at

Alex Duval Smith covers the region of Sierra Leone for The Independent newspaper in the UK. To read more of her reports, go to the Indepents newspaper's website at and make a search on her name.

March 2001 | Archive | View images | © Seamus Murphy