How a team of refugee athletes made it to the Tokyo Games.LM By Leonardo Mangia28.7.21

Source: Vice Com

NGONG, Kenya – There’s no shortcut to the Olympics. For some athletes in the games this year, the path to Tokyo began with an escape from war.

Twenty-nine refugees—19 women and 10 men—are among top athletes of the world seeking to realize their Olympic dreams in the Japanese capital, competing in a dozen sports.

These world-class athletes escaped from conflicts and dictatorships, a run that brought them to the campus of the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation on the Ngong Hills, outside the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Some of them hope for a medal, but some consider themselves having already won their race for life.

Prompted by a refugee crisis caused by the Syrian civil war, the International Olympic Committee created the Refugees Olympic Team in 2015 as a gesture to give hope to millions of refugees around the world. Tegla Loroupe, the Kenyan former distance runner and founder of an eponymous foundation, led the team to the Rio Games in 2016.

The 29 athletes were drawn from a pool of 55 who received scholarships to train for the games and will compete in athletics, badminton, boxing, canoeing, cycling, judo, karate, shooting, swimming, taekwondo, weightlifting, and wrestling.

Four runners trained by Tegla will compete in Tokyo in the coming days. 

Rose Nathike Lokonyen and Anjelina Nadai Lohalith are the only women selected in athletics for this year. Lokonyen will run the 800 meters and Lohalith will run the 1500 meters.

“I’m not just doing this for myself only. I represent 80 million refugees all over the world,” Lohalith said. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 82.4 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced, among them 26.4 million refugees, many from Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar.

Lohalith said she hopes her participation at the Olympics will “open a way for someone like me.”

Both Lohalith and Lokonyen also competed as part of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Olympics.

Lokonyen and Lohalith arrived in the Kenyan town of Kakuma in 2002, when they were both eight years old and had just escaped South Sudan’s second civil war.

While at high school, they participated in many running competitions that put them under the radar of Tegla’s foundation.

In the Rio Olympics, Lokonyen served as the refugee team’s flag bearer. Rather than a country’s flag, she carried the Olympic flag. When they entered the stadium hearing the cheers of the audience, she said, “we felt that we are human beings, like others.”

“Because whatever that human being can do, also a refugee person can do. Because that’s just a status, and no one chooses to be a refugee.” 

Other athletes in the team left countries including Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Iran, and are hosted by 13 countries. 

Their path to the Olympics was filled with uncertainty even just months before the games started. 

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation’s campus in the Ngong Hills, and all of the athletes were forced to return to Kakuma refugee camp in the Turkana Desert.

They were only allowed to return to Nairobi in October to resume full-time training.

Paulo Amotun Lokoro and James Nyang Chiengjiek, who also escaped to Kenya from South Sudan, will compete in the 800 meters and 5000 meters, respectively.

James lost his father in 1999 and, not wanting to be caught as a child soldier, he arrived in Kakuma. 

He attended school in a highland town known for its runners and joined a group of older boys training for long-distance events. At first, he did not have proper running shoes. 

“All of us got a lot of injuries because of the wrong shoes we had,” he said. “Then we were sharing. If you have two pairs of shoes, then you help the one that has none.”

Sometimes he borrowed footwear from others, but he won no matter what he wore on his feet. 

“That’s when I realized I could make it as a runner and if God gives you a talent, you have to use it,” he said.