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Christine Mboma: How sprinter overcame tragedy to win over Namibia

Christine Mboma's success in Tokyo came after she had to abandon running in the 400m, her preferred event

Christine Mboma's success in Tokyo came after she had to abandon running in the 400m, her preferred event

When she was 13, friends started abandoning Christine Mboma – for the cruellest of reasons – but now the undisputed queen of Namibian sport is the toast of a nation.

Upon her return from Tokyo, where she became the first Namibian woman to win an Olympic medal, her journey from the airport into the capital Windhoek highlighted her newfound stature.

For a 45-kilometre journey took three hours given the public turn-out.

“People were screaming my name and running, chasing the car – it was crazy and fun,” Mboma, 18, told BBC Sport Africa.

But five years ago, her landscape was very different in rural northern Namibia where her single-parent household was so poor she shared a bedroom with her grandmother and slept on a bed without a mattress.

“I grew up with a single mum,” said the BBC African Sports Personality of the Year nominee. “At 13, my mum passed away and I had to stay with my uncle and grandmother.

“Everything changed and I lost so many friends. Some people didn’t like me because I was an orphan.”

Being an orphan can be an isolating experience in Africa given the stigma often associated with their situation, with some seeing them as a financial burden while others superstitiously believe they carry misfortune.

Her father is actually still alive but after abandoning her mother, who was disabled, when Mboma was six, he has long been outside the family unit.

Mboma thus matured incredibly quickly as the onus fell upon her to care for her two siblings.

“They’re my kids now. It was a hard life I was living – stressing, and just thinking about my mum,” she says. “I was stressing a bit, then I started doing sports.”

Her athletic abilities are changing her life, not just financially but also geographically, given she now lives nearly 500km from home with her coach Henk Botha and his family.

“From a very poor background, Christine had a really tough time growing up and then her mother passed away during childbirth and the [unborn] sibling too,” said Botha, a former captain of Namibia’s rugby side.

“She had to become a grown-up because the support system was just not enough. At the end, that’s the character we see.”

And what character it is – for en route to winning Olympic silver, this quietly-spoken teen overcame an unexpected ban, a media storm and a change of event, all less than a month before the Games began.

Rollercoaster ride

In less than a week, Mboma’s career was turned upside down.

On 30 June, she broke the Under-20 world record for the 400m, her preferred event, in Poland – “I was shocked, but happy”.

Two days later, she learned she could no longer compete over 400m because of her naturally-high testosterone levels – “I was shocked, and sad.”

“It was bad news,” she recalls.

Governing body World Athletics’ rules state that female athletes with overly-high testosterone levels cannot contest any race between 400m and the mile unless they artificially reduce their levels.

“I said I have one chance – the 200m,” Mboma remembers. “If I was going to think about the 400m and all that stuff, I would lose focus and then wouldn’t perform well at the Olympics.”

Within two months of switching distances, Mboma had broken the African and World U20 record for the 200m four times, with all but one coming in Tokyo.

“When I reached the Olympic final, I was very scared,” said a teenager who burst onto the athletics scene this year. “I just pretended I was okay, smiling and waving at people, cameras and all that stuff.”

She need not have worried.

As the world watched, a girl who had received her first running spikes just three years previously outpaced childhood heroes Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica and Ivorian Marie-Josee Ta Lou, recording a personal best to finish behind Jamaican Elaine Thompson-Herah.

“I wasn’t thinking about the race – I was just running – and when I [crossed] the line, they said I was second. I was touching my face, [thinking] ‘is this real or am I dreaming?'”

It was no dream but concrete reality that Namibia, a nation of just 2.5 million inhabitants, was back on athletics’ top table for the first time since 1996, when Frankie Fredericks won his fourth and last Olympic silver.

Eighteen days later, Mboma won the World Under-20 title (in Kenya) before, in September, she twice blitzed a high-quality field in the Diamond League – winning the final itself in Zurich to clinch the annual title.

Golden future?

Mboma and training partner Beatrice Masilingi were found to have naturally-high testosterone levels in July

Mboma says she does not understand the complex World Athletics regulations surrounding athletes adjudged to have a ‘Difference of Sexual Development’ (DSD).

“I have no idea,” she freely admits.

Her coach, meanwhile, says that after World Athletics told him Mboma and training partner Beatrice Masilingi could not contest the 400m due to DSD rules, he rejected an invitation to undertake further tests, saying he did not trust the organisation’s process.

As long as World Athletics does not amend its rules further to cover the 200m, which Botha has some concerns about, Mboma is surely eyeing a thrilling future over the distance.

“My aim is to improve my personal best and see what happens.”

Her best time, 21.78s, is 0.45s off a world record which, given her poor start can be significantly improved, is firmly in her sights. So too Olympic gold, especially after already bagging a silver.

“When I took the medal and put it around my neck, tears were in my eyes. I never dreamed of becoming an Olympian and now I had a silver medal – I was so proud.”

Did she dedicate the medal to anybody?

“Yes – my mum.”

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