The Olympic judo hopeful on why he joined the frontline of the Arab spring protests
Originally published in the Guardian on Monday 16th April 2012.
Rain pours through bullet holes that pierce the roof of Yemen’s national judo centre and is being collected in small plastic buckets on the blue matting of the training area. The agricultural-style tin hut is just metres from Change Square, scene of much of the bloodshed in the country’s recent revolution to depose President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but it also home to one of Yemen’s only Olympians.
Inside, the national champion is training in the gloom, while his coach barks instructions over the din of the rain hammering on the roof. The electricity has been off for three days, but Ali Khousrof is busy preparing for London in July, a little over a year after he was shot in the abdomen during Yemen’s Arab spring uprisings.
Khousrof seems as unlikely a judo fighter as he is a revolutionary. When we sit down together to drink tea in Sana’a's old city he is polite, gentle and candid about both politics and his country’s problems. The 23-year-old, who represented his country at the Beijing Olympics four years ago, talks at length and with pride about the achievements of the Arab spring, despite the fact that his injury prevented him training for nearly eight months. His coaches still feel he is far from ready for the Games. But the fighter seems at peace with his decision to participate in the revolution despite the sacrifice it has meant to his chances of Olympic glory.
“I fell in love with judo when I was five because I saw it as my calling, so of course I thought about the risks of getting hurt. But from the very first day of protest, my personal belief was that I had to be with the youth through everything.”
On the day he was injured, Khousrof had been running in the mountains outside Sana’a with friends. He explains that he and his fellow athletes protested every day with as much devotion as they dedicated to their sport. They had finished training and were relaxing over lunch when they received a text message about a protest outside the city’s athletics stadium. They drove straight there. Before long Ali felt what he describes as a rock hitting him. He was knocked back by the impact, but got back on his feet. He looked down and saw blood on his jacket.
“I was due to compete in Moscow 10 days after I was hit. All I could think about that I had ruined my chances of going to Russia.”
The young athlete was rushed to hospital on a motorcycle. He had, in fact, been hit by a deflected bullet, which had shattered into 11 pieces that were now lodged in his abdomen.
“After a while I started wondering, would I be able to continue judo? Had the bullet hit the bone or was it just a flesh wound?”
Nobody at Yemen’s judo foundation had any idea about Khousrof’s daily participation in the running street battles between protesters and forces loyal to the regime.
“At the beginning, my coach just thought I was going to college after training, but he didn’t know I was protesting. The day he found out was when he first visited me in hospital after I’d been shot. He was furious.”
“He told me: ‘You’re with the team of the republic, you shouldn’t be protesting.’ He told me to represent Yemen through my work, not through protest.”
Khousrof needed specialist care not available in Yemen and for a while it looked as if no one could help. The country’s Olympic committee was politically paralysed: it could not to help an athlete injured battling the regime.
“They couldn’t come into my private affairs. I’d hurt myself in a protest and it wasn’t their job to come and save me,” says Khousrof.
Eventually it was the president of the country’s judo committee, Noman Shahir, who took the risk of personally paying for him to fly to Jordan for treatment. Khousrof says he will be permanently indebted to the man he calls “The Captain”.
At the moment nobody in the tents that still line Change Square is even considering Khousrof’s chance of winning a medal in London, despite his gold at the Arab Games in December. For many of the shabaab, or youth, the revolution is unfinished and it is enough that one of them will represent their country at the Olympics. But Ali is adamant he is not interested in playing the wounded revolutionary or going to London to “be a tourist”. His determination allows his coach to dream briefly.
“If Ali Khousrof got a medal? That would be the biggest dream of ours and everyone in Yemen.” He pauses, his gaze switching to his feet. “Ooh … for Yemen … That’s a very, very big deal.”