From fleeing war in Iraq to facing bullies in his adopted hometown and dealing with the death of his father, Ali Al-Saad has had a hugely challenging childhood. Throughout it all sport has made a difference and never more so than at the Lillehammer 2016 Youth Olympic Games.
“I was down there. I didn’t know if I would come up again and start a new life but Lillehammer was like the light in the dark, the light to show me the right way,” Al-Saad said.
The Iraqi-born 20 year old, who moved to Norway when he was 10, applied to join the YOG’s Young Leader programme in 2015. Two years later he was being given flowers and personally thanked for his part in the Lillehammer 2016 Games by the Crown Prince of Norway.
“It was really a special thing, it changed the whole of my life. The way I see things now is different to a year ago,” said Al-Saad. “It has helped me grow as a person, not just in sports. It was a really, really huge thing for me.”
It was really a special thing, it changed the whole of my life.Ali Al-Saad
Backed by both the local organising committee and the Norwegian Olympic Committee (NIF), the Young Leaders programme was designed to encourage a new generation of young volunteers and leaders to engage in youth sport across the country. Al-Saad was one of 220 young leaders who participated in three courses in the lead-up to the Games, intended to ensure long-term involvement in regional sport.
For the Iraqi, the first practical result to emerge from his involvement was a clear sense of direction. “In the end I am going to work in sport for sure,” said the young man, before he added, “I believe I was born to work in sport.”
It is quite a statement but Al-Saad has long had a close affinity with the power of sport to change and affect. It played an invaluable role in helping him adapt after arriving in Grue, a town in eastern Norway, having fled a war that killed his father. “My father and I were really close friends, not only like father and son. It was the biggest loss of my life, I was crying for days,” Al-Saad said. “I came to a small town and everyone knows each other, so the first two years it was difficult for me to be one of them. It was like, ‘who is that kid?’ I understand but at the same time it was really tough.”
The local football club came to Al-Saad’s rescue: “I was lucky enough the club gave me a chance to play. That was the beginning. Those days, to have good coaches around – they knew my situation, they knew what football meant to me – they helped me to be one of the team,” he said.
The Grue Sports Club became the centre of Al-Saad’s new life and the moment he was named captain of the U18 side when aged just 15, he knew he belonged. The skills he learned as a Young Leader and the experiences he went through as part of the team at the Youth Olympic Games have since crystallised a desire to give back to others what was given to him.
“I want to make a difference. I want to see that smile on people’s faces because when I was in a difficult situation I was lucky enough to have the people help me. I want to be there for people who were for me a few years ago,” said Al-Saad.
I want to make a difference. I want to see that smile on people’s faces because when I was in a difficult situation I was lucky enough to have the people help me.Ali Al-Saad
He has started already. The 20-year-old is a referee at Grue Sports Club, on the regional sports board for Hedmark, and in demand. “It is really funny, clubs are asking me if I am interested to help them. They know I was one of those young leaders,” Al-Saad explained. “First I got asked by the neighbour club (to Grue Sports Club) if I wanted to join the board and represent the young people. I was like I want to help but at the same time I want to help my home club first.”
The local sports clubs are not the only one who have noticed the contribution Al-Saad made to the Lillehammer 2016 Games. “I got the respect of every single person in the town. When I go out I have my jacket with Lillehammer on it and everyone says ‘Hi. How was it? We are proud of you’. A few times people have asked if they can take a picture with me and I was like; ‘What? With me?’ It is really funny,” he laughed.
This response has even been replicated by some of those kids who used to give the Iraqi a hard time when he arrived in Grue. Just a few weeks ago one came up to him in the street, apologised for the past and told him he had made the town proud.
Twenty-one in March, Al-Saad will join a local college in September, taking a general sports course in year one before deciding on the details of his career – coach, administrator, teacher – all remain possibilities at this stage.“I had a lot of positive things given to me. Now it is time to give back,” he said. “I want to help sport in Norway.”