Here at ICS, a love for sport is something many of our volunteers have in common. But it’s not every day that those volunteers represent their country in the biggest sporting event on earth.
But we now have an ICS first – an Olympian among our alumni ranks. Sierra Leonean in-country volunteer Ishamail Kamara, who was on placement with ICS in his home town of Makeni in 2013, will be battling it out to take home the men’s 100m medal.
Representing Sierra Leone
Ishamail took a break from his busy training programme to tell us about how he’s feeling ahead of the big day, what it’s like to represent his country and how it’s thanks to ICS that he got into running.
“There's a lot of people from Sierra Leone, a lot of people from my home town, from different countries who are telling me, 'Ishamail, we're expecting much from you, we believe in you, we want you to do more'. I'm nervous because of those people!”
Talent on the track
Explaining that his running career began when he joined the ICS programme in his home town of Makeni, 19-year-old Ishamail said not everyone initially believed in his abilities:
“I was playing football when it began. Football was my passion, and one day a man spotted me on the pitch and said 'Ishamail, your talent’s on the track."
“When I told my ICS UK counterparts I could run, many of them didn’t believe me. So I went and did a try out – and became the fastest man in my city."
A place on the national team
After taking a break to concentrate on his work and volunteering with ICS, Ishamail started training hard with a view to competing more seriously. And the hard work paid off – securing him a first place in a national 200m competition and second place in the 100m.
Sadly the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone preventedIshamail from competing in 2014, but, undeterred, he returned to the track last summer to steal the first place in the men’s national 100m race to become “the champion of Sierra Leone”, earning him his ticket to Rio to compete globally.
“I feel immense pride in representing the people of Sierra Leone. When I found out I was in [the Olympic team] I shed tears.”
Sharing my own values
While on placement with ICS, Ishamail was part of a team of UK and Sierra Leonean volunteers working on several different projects tackling various issues affecting the Makeni community.
“We were working on cash management, teaching people how to store their money safely without relying on the banks,” Ishamail explained, “particularly for those living in the more rural areas. We also worked on educating people about the dangers of losing our forests. On top of that, we were also working in schools, where I was teaching history, English and politics."
“I enjoyed it so much. I remember when our counterparts were about to leave for the UK and we shed tears because we were so used to each other. I didn't want the work to end.
“It's hard for young people in Sierra Leone right now, but volunteering can really make a difference. Raising awareness – something many Sierra Leoneans lack – can make a difference.”
A message of peace
Sport is one way that positive change in international development is being encouraged. Just over two years ago the UN General Assembly declared the first ever ‘International Day of Sport for Development and Peace’, putting sport firmly on the agenda.
With 15 to 35-year-olds representing a third of Sierra Leone’s population, having positive role models like Ishamail is important in encouraging younger people to stay healthy and dream big.
“Sport can change the lives of young people. Sierra Leone is a very poor country but young people here love sport because it changes lives. It gives a message of peace and it brings people closer.”
Life after Rio
Having spent the last week in and out of training sessions, Ishamail has also had a chance to spot his biggest running inspiration, Usain Bolt, on the track: “It was amazing seeing him in person. I've always wanted to meet Bolt and to finally do it – I was so excited.”
So what’s next? Ishamail has big plans.
“The Olympics has transformed me. There's people back in Sierra Leone who see me as an Olympian, and there's not many of those back in my country.
“It means a lot to me. I'm going to use that influence to shape views back at home. To have the courage, the passion – if you want to make it to the Olympics you can do it.”
Don’t forget to cheer on Ishamail as he competes in the men’s 100m on Saturday 13 August at 1pm (BST).