Mohammad Ali ready to run
AUCKLAND – EVERY time Mohammad Ali introduces himself, the 17-year-old endures raised eyebrows and, sometimes, incredulous looks.
No surprise, given that the 3,000-metre runner’s name sounds just like that of three-time world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, whom many consider one of the greatest athletes of all time.
The Fairfield College student’s name is a combination of an uncle’s (Mohammad) and grandfather’s (Ali).
‘Some of my friends, they think it’s a fake name at first,’ said Mohammad, one of 54 New Zealanders bound for the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, yesterday.
‘Only after five, 10 minutes of conversation do they believe me.’
Teachers and customs control officers at airports do a double take as well, but the reigning New Zealand and Australian junior 3,000m champion’s name is a bonus when it comes to the opposite sex.
‘All the girls love him, they’re always wanting to get photos with him,’ said his 24-year-old sister Fatuma.
Five posters of the former American boxer and 1960 Olympics gold medallist adorn Mohammad’s bedroom walls.
The only time he tried out boxing was a few months ago when fellow Kiwi YOG athletes came together for a camp. He got punched and cut on the upper lip.
Still, ‘The Greatest’ is his idol.
‘I watch videos of him on TV, and read his autobiography when I was 13. Reading about how he lost when he was about to retire, came back, won, and then retired – that was really inspirational.’
The Kiwi teenager is a natural-born sportsman as well – first picking up karate before proceeding to don school colours in rugby union, rugby league, football, volleyball and athletics.
Victory at the Pan-Pacific Junior Championships’ 800m and 1,500m events (Under-14 category) convinced the then-11-year-old he should devote his energies to running.
His 1.62m, 53kg frame suits the middle and long-distance events, and his aim at the YOG is to better his personal record of 8min 40sec.
Said his father Rage (pronounced Ra-je): ‘We were aware he’d have the same name as the boxer, but our dream was actually for him to play football.’
The 62-year-old and his wife Koina, 51, along with their four sons and four daughters, hail from Djibouti in Africa.
When civil war broke out in 1991, the family fled to neighbouring Ethiopia and were largely based there. Mohammad was born in 1993 – in a car – when his parents were driving near the small town of Obock in Djibouti.
In 2001, the family left Africa for New Zealand. They settled in Hamilton, a town about two hours’ drive from Auckland.
He is now among the most promising athletes in Oceania. But, having never competed in Asia, Mohammad is wary of Singapore’s high humidity and the strength of the field.
India’s Indrajeet Patel, for instance, won May’s YOG Asian Area qualifier nearly 25 seconds faster than Mohammad’s personal best. The second, third and fourth finishers were also better than his time.
Mohammad said: ‘It’s good to be part of the first YOG. But you don’t know what’s going to happen, so it’s going to be tough.’
‘Some of my friends, they think it’s a fake name at first.’