Braima Dabo thought he did the obvious when he stopped to help Jonathan Busby on the tracks a year ago in Doha.
It was the opening heat of the men’s 5000m at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019. The race had been won by Ethiopia’s Selemon Barega and every runner had crossed the line finish line except Dabo, representing Guinea-Bissau, and Jonathan Busby from Aruba.
Dabo was overtaking Busby when he observed that the Aruban was in real pain and wasn’t going to make it, so he stopped to help.
“This was someone who needed help,” says Dabo in Portuguese, “so I went to help, nothing more. It was normal.”
Except the world disagreed with Dabo; it was not an entirely ordinary thing to sacrifice one’s race to help a rival over the finish line. The pair received a standing ovation as they crossed the finish line together at the Khalifa Stadium in Doha, but that was nothing compared to what followed.
That singular act of rare sporting kindness hit headlines all over the world. The story appeared on TV, newspapers and was lauded online and on social media networks. A clip of the moment has, to date, had more than seven million views across World Athletics’ platforms.
Dabo was hailed for great sportsmanship and became the subject of media frenzy in Doha, something he did not quite understand.
“What happened in my life after that was like a nightmare,” says the 27-year-old with a big laugh. “When I saw the attention that people gave me in Doha, at first I was afraid. I did not understand why because I thought it was normal. It is only when I returned to Portugal that friends helped me understand why it was such a big deal.
“After that, I felt gratitude that people showed me love and cared about me and I felt blessed and I am very thankful to everyone.”
The Fair Play Award
In November 2019, Dabo and Busby flew to Monaco where the Bissau-Guinean received the International Fair Play Award at the World Athletics Awards.
“I was not expecting that because it was a spontaneous action, normal for me but when World Athletics gave me the award, it was like a dream and it was an award that motivated me to do all I want to do in athletics and my life.”
Many more fantastic things happened to the “small boy from Guinea-Bissau”, as Dabo describes himself.
Portuguese media were very interested in telling his story and that led to a series of surprising events, the most unexpected of which was receiving an invitation from a very high office in Portugal.
“The most important and strange thing that happened to me was when the president of Portugal invited me and gave me a distinction from what happened in Doha.
“A group here gave me a Christmas gift. They sent me to Guinea-Bissau to see my family after eight years! After that I went to Sao Tome for a talk with a motivation group and I was part of Tedx talks in Matosinhos.
“Some nice people crossed my path but life in the athletics world has not changed much. I still run with my shoes and shorts, everything is the same,” he jokes. “I was not expecting that, so it’s not so much to me personally, life has not changed so much, even if it has given me the opportunity to dream.”
Dabo has used his newfound popularity to do some good. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck Portugal, many African students were stranded with nowhere to turn to for help. Being a student himself, Dabo understood exactly what they were going through. The Bissau-Guinean had an idea.
“I thought if my name has value, why not start a help group to feed those who are all alone here,” says Dabo. “My institute and Carritas Portugal helped to collect some basic needs to help those who had no money and I am so proud about that.”
Busby after Doha
If Dabo has been living the dream since Doha, the man he helped has been living the complete opposite.
For Busby, the crippling pain he experienced that day on the track heralded a challenging period to come.
“In Doha it was a combination of dehydration plus injury,” says Busby. When he returned home, he continued to race with disappointing results.
“After Doha I participated in four races but I didn’t perform optimal. Normally I win races in the Caribbean but people started beating me, I got tired easily and the races were not like how it used to go. So I had to take a break.”
The 34-year-old long distance runner says he’s been trying to pinpoint the exact problem with little success.
“I’ve had x-rays on my hip and my back, but they saw nothing. I am still very stiff right now in my abductors.”
He received a lot of attention after Doha, but all of it wasn’t positive.
“At first I could see very positive messages from around the world. But then I saw some negative messages that affected me. I was struggling with them.”
To make things worse, Busby lost two jobs and his home, and then the coronavirus exploded in Aruba. He was later diagnosed with bipolar depression and spent more than three months in a clinic for treatment.
“I wasn’t getting allowance, no money, no job, nothing, because the situation in the country was really bad,” he says.
“So it’s not been so beautiful, no rainbows. I am just doing my best right now to keep positive. I am living at a friend’s house right now, just trying to get myself back together.”
A spotlight for athletics
The Aruba Athletics Federation and the Athletics Federation of Guinea-Bissau have benefited from the attention their athletes received.
“What he did was something very special,” says the President of the Athletics Federation of Guinea-Bissau, Renato Pappy Moura. “[It is] something that comes from him because that’s the way he really is.
“It was really good for us because people started talking more about our country and the humble people that we have, and people from our country started talking a lot more about athletics and that was really important for us.
“We are still living that dream.”
It had a positive effect in Aruba, too.
“It had ripple effects on the entire population of Aruba, not only on athletics,” says the General Secretary of the Aruba Athletics Federation, Nigel Nedd. “The ATIA (Aruba Trade Industry Association) had scheduled to bring Braima to Aruba on 18 March for an appreciation award, but this was all cancelled due to Covid-19.”
The pandemic has been catastrophic for many sectors on the island and has hit athletics particularly hard. This has limited the kind of help that the federation has been able to offer Busby during his difficulties.
“All of our athletes get professional help for their injuries, however, in Jonathan’s case he was also interned in a clinic to treat his depression,” explains Nedd. “This, of course, had a higher priority. It’s a very difficult period on the island at the moment. Many people are unemployed because Aruba is so dependent on the tourism industry which was completely shut down. It will take at least another year from this point forward before we can recover from this.”
The Bissau-Guinean federation is also experiencing difficulties.
“At the moment we are not doing much more than we should because we have some problems in the federation. We had those problems long before Braima did what he did, but what he did is not forgotten, so when the time comes we will use that to give them courage to keep going and to represent the best for our country.”
Friendship for life
Busby and Dabo have become fast friends, even with the distance and language barrier between them. Busby speaks no Portuguese and Dabo no English, so how have they managed to stay in touch?
“I downloaded a translator on my phone and when he says something I put it in there, so the language has never been a barrier,” says Busby.
“From the moment we had in Doha, Jonathan is like a brother,” says Dabo. “Jonathan told me all what was happening to him so I was worried. The Covid situation added stress to Jonathan’s life but we have talked about it and slowly things are getting better and now I am not so worried. I am happy and I hope the worst is over.
“I was really looking forward to visiting him in April when Aruba’s government sent me an invitation but with all of Covid -19 going on in the world, it was not possible to travel to Aruba. Jonathan is a very nice guy, very humble, so it’s a friendship for life.”
Busby reciprocates the growing bonds of friendship with Dabo.
“When I read the negative messages after Doha and I talked to Braima about it, he told me not to care about those things,” says Busby.
“We just talk, not every day, but we talk to each other. When I am missing, he does try to get me motivated and try to see where I am and what I am doing, why I am not posting things. He is a very kind person.”
Both of them are dreaming of competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, now planned for the summer of 2021, although they are realistic about their qualification. They both know their best hope of making it would be through invitation, since they have been unable to fully train because of the pandemic for Dabo, and injury for Busby.
But what brought them together remains ever special, especially for the Aruban.
“That moment, I will never, ever forget it,” says Busby. “When he grabbed me around my shoulders, he has been like a brother to me ever since. It’s very special what he did for me and he’s been a special friend until now. He made this thing happen in Doha and all I can say is I am very happy I met him.”
Helen Ngoh for World Athletics