Feature | Athletics

"Sport is friendship, sport is kindness..." - Braima Dabo on how a simple selfless act made history

The Bissau-Guinean athlete became famous at the World champs in Doha for helping a fellow runner to reach the finish line: "As athletes, we must always strive to showcase the values that sport teach us."

By Evelyn Watta ·

Before the 2019 World Athletics Championships Braima Dabo had never run a 5000m. Like any athlete he had big plans for his debut. He aimed to run as fast as he could and register a decent personal best that could get him on track for the Tokyo Olympics.

Dabo's biggest race turned out to be one of his most dramatic runs.

As the runner from Guinea-Bissau approached the final bend of his qualifying heat, he noticed that Jonathan Busby from Aruba was straining to finish.

Instead of sprinting past, to better his personal record, Dabo stopped and helped Busby to the line.

That remarkable act of selflessness ensured the two runners not only achieved their ultimate goal - to finish their race - but also captured the world's attention and won Dabo a host of awards and praise.

"What I did was something normal for me. I didn't set out to do a kind act," Dabo reflected on his display of humanity in a chat with the Olympic Channel.

"Human kindness should always transcend our personal goals to win or achieve personal records." - Braima Dabo to Olympic Channel

"To the world, it was an act of kindness. But to me, it was a natural and a spontaneous act. The person next to me had a goal, to finish his race. And to achieve this, he needed my help."

Braima Suncar Dabo of Guinea-Bissau helps Jonathan Busby of Aruba across the finish line in the Men's 5000 metres heats during day one of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 at Khalifa International Stadium on September 27, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Dabo’s short journey to the Worlds

Braima Dabo's running story began nine years ago. Before he moved to the town of Mirandela in Portugal in 2011 he had never run competitively in his life. The only running he did was shuttling between school and his remote village in Catio, in the tropical West African nation that lies on the Atlantic coast.

The 18-year-old was thrilled when a Portuguese NGO offered him and 14 other teenagers a chance to study in Europe.

"I began running after moving here," he told the Olympic Channel from Braganca, a city in the north-east of Portugal, where he is currently studying for his master's degree in Organisational Management at the Polytechnic Institute.

Then in 2019, he ran his first major race, a half marathon in Cape Verde, that opened doors for him.

The Guinean Athletics Association approached him to represent the country at the World Championships which was just three months away. It meant Dabo, who was just settling in as a half marathoner, had to scale down to 5000m.

"I was thrilled to be offered this huge chance. I accepted it and since I didn't have much of a choice, I took it as a challenge, a proud honour and moment to represent my country, my people at a world event," said the runner who holds a personal best of one hour, 15 minutes in the 21km.

He had only 10 weeks to prepare for the 'the race of his life'.

"For two months I had special preparations to prepare for the 5000m which I was entered for. It was crazy but when I got to Doha I was delighted."

And with that the distance runner became Guinea-Bissau's sole representative in Doha, joining only a handful of athletes from his Portuguese-speaking nation to have competed at the World Athletics Championships.

Braima Dabo with his family in Guinea-Bissau.

"Finish the race"

As he lined up in the first heat of the 5000m, Dabo had one goal, finish his race in one of the fastest times ever by a Bissau-Guinean. But as he overtook Aruba's Busby, the only other runner that was still on track, he noticed the Aruba athlete was struggling. Dabo stopped and decided to help Busby to the finish line.

"I offered him my hand and helped him to the finish line. I didn't need to think about what to do, it was the most natural thing to do," he recalled of his act of sportsmanship.

"For Jonathan and me, finishing our races was so important. That is why we went to Doha. Our countries bestowed us the greatest honour, and therefore we had to finish the race."

Dabo timed 18:10.87, way behind the winner Ethiopia's Selemon Barega, but his sporting kindness won millions of hearts and made headlines around the world.

"When I walked to the changing room, there were so many journalists waiting to speak to me," he recalled. "Honestly I was blown away with all the attention I received. But at that moment I didn't quite understand the global impact of my action."

Dabo only understood the impact when he began receiving awards and recognition for his selfless act.

He won the 2019 World Athletics Fair Play Award and even earned the admiration from the highest office in Portugal.

Braima Dabo with the President of Portugal Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.

"I received awards and was invited to speak to corporates and even spoke at a TEDx event. I had a chance to meet the president of Portugal who recognised the kind act," said Dabo.

"The best part was I also had a chance to see my family for the first time in eight years and celebrate with them."

"This is a moment that will stay with me all my life. A moment I will never forget in my career and more, so I get to look back on the wonderful friendship that began with Jonathan."

During the lockdown at the start of the coronavirus pandemic used the spotlight to rally help for fellow African students who were affected by Covid-19 in Portugal.

"With the help of Caritas (a charity run by the Catholic church) and the Institute where I study, we managed to raise funds and distribute food to some of the students who were stuck here."

His will to perform his best remains, and he hopes to be the fastest athlete from Guinea Bissau over the 5000m.

"I know I will have another chance to better my personal record. Like every athlete after the world championships, the dream is the Olympic Games. Qualify and compete at the Olympics."

But throughout, he chooses to cherish the value of kindness that can sometimes be lost in the heat of competition and race to victories.

"The world, today more than ever, needs kindness. In our life as in sport, we must not always focus on competing and chasing personal goals that we are blind to the pain of those hurting around us that may need a hand."