Against the odds, Qatar security guard in race of his life

Six days a week, Kenyan guard Michael Douglas Ongeri heads straight to Doha’s biggest park, Aspire Park, after work, to Khalifa Stadium that will host the World Athletics Championship in 2019.

Kenyan runner Michael Douglas Ongeri trains at the Aspire Park in the Qatari capital of Doha in hopes of fullfilling his dream to become an international running star. Karim Jaafar/AFP
Powered by automated translation

DOHA // Kenyan security guard Michael Douglas Ongeri has a dream.

Though far from his family, he will not be daunted by poverty, a 13-hour workday or training in Qatar’s searing heat.

Nor will he let the 11 kilometres he has to walk from work to the track – then back home – slow him down.

“You get used to it,” Ongeri says matter-of-factly. “I have to do it, it is something which is me, I like running, I have to run.”

While many dream of becoming an international track star, the 22-year-old Kenyan may actually have a chance.

Six days a week, he leaves work around 5pm and heads to Doha’s biggest park, Aspire Park, in the shadow of the city’s Khalifa Stadium that will host the World Athletics Championship in 2019.

In temperatures of over 40°C and stifling humidity, the Kenyan puts on his training gear and, sweat pouring, runs up to 12km through Aspire’s green expanses.

Paid 1,400 Qatari riyals (Dh1,412) a month, Ongeri sometimes goes without food when it is close to his payday, as he may have no cash left.

“He is talented and I think he could achieve his dream as a 1,500metre/5,000m runner,” says former athlete Liz McColgan who with her husband, John Nuttall, founded and runs the Doha Athletics Club (DAC), which helps Ongeri train twice a week.

As a former 10,000m world champion, silver medallist at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and winner of the New York and London Marathons, McColgan’s opinion carries weight. Her husband, also an athlete, competed in the 1996 Olympics and her daughter just ran in the 5,000m final in Rio.

“He has a really good running style so I could see him being a better track runner,” says McColgan who has been based in Qatar for the past two-and-a-half years.

“I met Michael when he sent me an email to the DAC website but I had seen him training alone at the park where we train, as it was unusual to see someone running so fast on his own,” says McColgan.

Younger members of the club surround Ongeri as he is training one night, with his coach Nuttall teasing him: “Come on Michael! Stop being so lazy!”

The security guard speeds past at a pace that marks him out from the other runners.

“Madame Liz”, as Ongeri calls McColgan, worries that any hopes he has of competing professionally could be scuppered by his lack of time to train.

“Unfortunately, he works ridiculous hours so can only run once a day,” she says. “If he wanted to race internationally you need twice a day.”

Ongeri grew up poor in Kenya’s Nyanza province and always loved running. But as the oldest son of five siblings, his duty was to his family, not his passion.

“My background wasn’t good, I faced hardship. I had to feed my family,” he says.

He ended up working on the same farm as his father and mother but word of a job in Qatar offered a chance to earn more money — and to run as well.

To secure his passage to the Gulf he paid an agent around $1,000 (Dh3,673) — cash he did not have but borrowed from an Italian boss at a shop where he worked in Kenya.

Three years on, after just repaying his loan and sending cash to his family, Ongeri survives in Doha on around $100 each month.

“Of course, now everybody [back home] is looking at me — ‘Please, I need this. Please I need that.’ It’s difficult, Doha is a very expensive place.”

As the temperature finally dips below 40°C, Ongeri has an hour’s running behind him and a 3km walk home ahead.

It may be a short distance from Aspire Park to Khalifa Stadium but it represents a lifetime’s ambition for Ongeri who hopes to one day end up running there.

“This is my dream, I will make it,” he says.

* Agence France-Presse