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Refugee runners: Olympics fields its first team without a country

Breaking barriers

They have fled war. Now they hope to make the first refugee Olympic team – and lift the spirits of stateless people around the world. 

 

 

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    Garkuouth Puok Diep (l.), a South Sudanese marathoner who hopes to qualify for the refugee Olympic team, runs in Eldoret,Kenya, with his training partner, Kenyan Michael Cheboi.
    Ryan Lenora Brown
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As a marathoner, Garkuouth Puok Diep knows his performance in races will hinge largely on how seriously he has trained. That is why, most mornings, he rises before dawn and hurtles himself up and down the rolling hills here, clocking as many as 15 miles as the sun sneaks over town and the wind turbines around him slice through the cold morning breeze. 

And it’s the reason that when he is not running Mr. Diep is nearly always watching runners – spending long hours squinting at grainy YouTube clips of the world’s top marathons on his cellphone, the sessions doubling as tours of Western cities he has never seen in person: London, Boston, New York, Paris. 

But Diep also knows from watching the best that at some point deep into a marathon, as a runner wobbles toward total exhaustion, finishing becomes less a question of endurance than of how one deals with pain. And that is a thing he knows something about. 

Running a marathon will never rank among the most difficult things he has done. It won’t be as painful as losing his entire family to a convoluted war in southern Sudan, or as lonely as fleeing his home when he was 12 and ending up in a refugee camp in Kenya. It won’t hurt as much as missing the people whose faces he still sees when he closes his eyes: his parents, his brother, his sister. 

When he began running five years ago, the sport initially seemed a useful way to quiet his mind, to flood out his own sorrow momentarily with a new and different kind of ache. “I would go out on a long run and come back with my mind blank,” he says. “All I could think of was the road.” 

On those days, his legs felt light, the miles easy, and from a corner of his mind so hopeful he rarely dared to tread, he began to imagine something fantastical: an Olympic stadium, the rising rumble of 100,000 cheering fans, his name over a crackling speaker as he propelled himself toward the marathon finish line ... in first place.

But even now it isn’t always easy to keep the old demons in their place. Sometimes, no matter how hard he pushes them away, they return, and his feet are suddenly bricks. Without warning, from somewhere in his memory comes the staccato pop of AK-47s and the dull thud of the approaching hooves of marauding tribesmen on horseback. He is 12. The air smells like smoke and metal. Everyone is moving in different directions and all around he hears adults shouting, pleading with him to do that very thing he now does every day in Ngong, the thing he hopes to do for 26.2 miles in Brazil this summer, the thing he believes might at last put his life on a new course.  

Run. 

When the refugee runners first arrived at the training camp, many had never worn running shoes before and found them painful Ryan Lenora Brown

Few events cultivate as deep and enthusiastic a sense of nationalism as the Olympic Games, a weeks-long parade of national colors and elite sporting prowess that makes it difficult to not feel a reverent awe for those world-class athletes with whom you share a common geography. But this August, when the 205 country delegations march into Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium for the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Games, the procession will also be joined by a very different kind of Olympic team. For the first time in history, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is fielding a small team of refugees – between five and 10 athletes who will represent not a country, but all those without one.

“We want to send a message of hope to all the refugees of the world,” said IOC president Thomas Bach in March when he announced the formation of the refugee team. 

For him and the rest of the IOC’s governing body, the decision to create the team is heavily symbolic, a nod to the suffering of tens of millions displaced by wars from Damascus to Kinshasa. Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that a record 60 million people around the world were either refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced within their own country. On average, more than 42,000 people are forced to leave their homes each day, according to the UNHCR. 

Iranian-born refugee Raheleh Asemani (l.) joined other tae kwon do athletes on the podium during a competition in China in 2010. Ryan Lenora Brown

But for Diep and the 42 other athletes the IOC is currently considering for the refugee team, it isn’t just a symbol of a crisis. It’s their way out of it. 

“I need to be a champion,” says Diep. “If you win, it changes your life.”

This is not the first time that athletes have participated in the Olympics without a country. For decades the IOC has occasionally trotted out the obscure category of “independent Olympic athlete” to allow athletes whose countries are tangled in political transition or international sanctions a chance to compete on the world’s biggest sporting stage. Yugoslav and Macedonian athletes competed in the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games this way, as did East Timorese and South Sudanese athletes in the years just after those countries became independent. 

Nor is it the first time that athletes forced to flee their home countries have become Olympians. The world of international distance running, to take just one example, is proof of the vast power of migration to reshape the face of a sport. England’s greatest living distance runner – Mo Farah – first came to the country as an 8-year-old fleeing war in Somalia, for instance, and this year’s Olympic marathon will feature athletes originally from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan who now run for Israel, the Netherlands, Poland, Great Britain, and the United States, among others. 

But the Refugee Olympic Athlete team in Rio will be something the competition hasn’t seen before: an entire team representing a global crisis.

“This has never been about winning medals – it’s about showing the world that conflict doesn’t break the spirit,” says John Anzrah, a former Kenyan Olympian who is now coaching Diep and 13 other refugee Olympic hopefuls at a camp near Nairobi. Worldwide, 43 elite athletes are under consideration for the refugee team, and together they are a telling cross section of the world’s displaced: an Iranian tae kwon do fighter in Belgium, a 17-year-old Syrian swimmer in Germany, two Congolese judo fighters in Brazil. 

But the largest group of athletes is here, living in a converted former orphanage in the hills just southwest of Nairobi and training under the watchful eye of one of Kenya’s greatest distance runners and philanthropists, Tegla Loroupe. Her foundation scouted them from two of Kenya’s massive refugee camps last year, and has spent the past six months attempting to transform them from talented hobby runners into Olympians. 

Now, just days remain until the IOC’s final selection of the refugee team, which will be made in early June. But in a way, Ms. Loroupe says, the Olympics are hardly the point. 

“When I look at them, when any of us look at them, we’re reminded that it isn’t by choice that people become refugees,” she says. “It could be any of us.” 

Refugee Angelina Nadai of South Sudan (second from r.) competes in a 1500 meter race at a meet in Eldoret, Kenya, where her competitors include elite middle-distance runners. Ryan Lenora Brown

Loroupe knows what it is like to be underestimated.

Before she became the first African woman to win a major world marathon or be a global UN Ambassador of Sport, she was a tiny girl from a rural tribe in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, with 24 siblings and a neatly bounded set of expectations for her life. She would marry, raise children, never stray far from home. Her father, a stern patriarch with four doting wives, sometimes heaped so many morning chores on her shoulders that the only way she could make it the five miles to school in time for the morning bell was to run. 

So she did, faster and faster, until not even the boys could keep up. By high school, Loroupe was a national champion in cross country – even though she didn’t own a pair of shoes until she was 17. But still, the skepticism lingered. She was too small, too frail, and, anyway, her ethnic group, the Pokot, weren’t supposed to be athletes: They were Kenya’s rednecks – violent and uneducated. 

Even worse, when she began to travel abroad to train and compete in Germany, she discovered that patriarchy had no borders. European coaches expressed skepticism that she could train with male runners – what if she distracted them with her feminine charm? – and her fellow athletes expected that when they returned from their long training runs together, she would be the one to clean their shared house and make dinner. 

“I began to realize that there will always be people who don’t want me to succeed, and that the worst thing I could do was marginalize myself,” she says. 

So she kept training. And then, suddenly, she began winning.  

In 1994, when she was 21, Loroupe became the first African woman to win the New York Marathon, ushering in an era of distance-running dominance by East African women that has continued ever since. In the years that followed, she set world records in 20, 25, 30, and 42.2 kilometers, winning major marathons and half-marathons in Berlin; Rotterdam, Netherlands; London; Rome; and Paris. For several years, she made more than
$1 million annually in prize money. Even her traditionalist father demurred – defying him and learning to run had been a good idea, he decided. 

But as far as she traveled, Loroupe could not forget home. And so as her running career wound down in the mid-2000s, she pursued bringing peace and development to her corner of northwestern Kenya, where cattle rustling and ethnic conflict had left deep scars across many communities. She threw her newfound riches into schools and clinics, and in 2003 began organizing annual “peace races,” bringing warring communities together for a collegial 10K road race. 

But something continued to nag her. At the starting line of her races, she frequently spotted the lean and lanky frames of southern Sudanese runners – refugees who had fled to northwest Kenya to escape the slow-motion civil war unfolding in their own country. 

“It broke my heart to look at these people and see the capacity but no resources,” she says.  

What Loroupe was witnessing on a small scale was, in fact, a national story. Kenya’s borders were bleeding. In the early 1990s, civil wars erupted or governments crumpled in almost every country Kenya touched, and the country was soon absorbing tens of thousands of migrants each year from Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia. To cope with the influx, the Kenyan government began to construct massive refugee camps near its northern borders. The two largest, Dadaab, near the Somalian border, and Kakuma, not far from what is now South Sudan and Ethiopia, were meant to be temporary refuges. 

But for many, the waiting never ended.    

By 2011, Dadaab was the largest refugee camp in the world, with a population of more than 300,000, and Kakuma wasn’t far behind. Today, a generation born in the camps is giving birth to another, while new refugees are flooding in from the civil war in neighboring South Sudan. Nearly 600,000 forced migrants now exist inside Kenya’s borders – one of the largest such populations in the world. And although the Kenyan government recently pledged to close its refugee camps, for now most refugees are still confined there. That mirrors a trend playing out worldwide: While it is the influx of African and Middle Eastern refugees into Europe that draws the most international attention, most migrants never make it farther than a neighboring country, and nearly 90 percent of the world’s refugees are sheltered by developing nations. 

Loroupe couldn’t stop thinking about those refugees, particularly the young ones, for whom everything was an exercise in waiting: for food, for permission to travel, for a way out. 

In 2014, she organized a peace race in Kakuma. Some 5,000 athletes participated in 5K and 10K races, and Loroupe was awestruck. “The talent was really incredible,” she says.

Soon after, she met with the IOC’s Mr. Bach, a longtime supporter of her foundation’s work. “I told him, I’ve just seen these amazing athletes, and he said, ‘Tegla, I need your support.’ ” 

The IOC was interested in fielding a team in the next Olympics specifically for refugees, he said. Would she help? 

Swimmer Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee, trains in Berlin. Ryan Lenora Brown

A year and a half later, at 7 o’clock on a cloudless northern Kenyan morning in August, the starting gun went off, and 200 runners bolted down a quiet paved road. 

From a distance, the race hardly looked serious. As the runners charged through the town of Kakuma toward the entrance to the refugee camp, most were barefoot. One boy had tied a pair of rubber sandals to his feet with rope, and some of the women had come in skirts, which they now clutched to their sides as they ran.  

But there was a steely determination to the ragtag pack of runners. Winning, they each knew, meant a slot in Loroupe’s Olympic training camp. Better still, it meant a way out of Kakuma.

For 22-year-old Angelina Nadai, that was no small matter. She had been in Kakuma on and off since she arrived in Kenya from southern Sudan in 2002, and now, about to finish high school, she dreaded the prospect of spending her adulthood in the camp. 

As the miles ticked by that morning, she noticed the pack of runners around her beginning to thin as racers dropped out, humbled by the distance and heat. One by one, she passed the other female runners, until, suddenly, she was all alone on a stretch of road she didn’t recognize. 

Dread welled in her stomach. Had she taken a wrong turn? 

Given how much time she had spent in the camp, it seemed ironic to her that she could now be lost here, squandering the best chance she’d ever had to get out. In fact, she knew Kakuma far better than she knew her home in South Sudan – a country she had technically never been to, since she fled a decade before independence in 2011. As she shuffled along an empty road in her socks, she cursed the camp’s monotonous sameness. 

“I was just thinking of my family,” she says. “Maybe if I can win this, it might be very easy for me to be with them again.” 

Then she turned a corner and saw something familiar – her school. The race’s finish. She sprinted toward it, collapsing just after the line. Quickly, she was swarmed by race officials and spectators, congratulating her on the time:
1 hour, 4 minutes. It was good enough for first place. 

•     •     •

Two months after the race in Kakuma, the first group of two dozen athletes arrived at a makeshift training center in Ngong. They settled into a sparse former orphanage so hurriedly converted to living quarters that there were still social studies lessons taped to the walls (Types of Semites, Types of Bantus, Types of Asians).

Most of the runners had come directly from Kakuma or Dadaab, though some, including Diep, had left the camps years before and had been scouted by Loroupe elsewhere. But few had any formal running training, and they were all now preparing for the Olympics in a place where world-class distance runners were prevalent. It’s not uncommon to see a group of runners thundering up and down the rolling hills here, training at speeds rivaling the front pack of the Boston Marathon (where, indeed, some of them have probably been). 

For a group of unseasoned runners from desert refugee camps, the transition was brutal. 

“In the beginning, they didn’t know anything about running,” says Mr. Anzrah, the refugee coach. “They didn’t know how to stretch, where to put their arms. They were completely raw.” 

It made for a strange tableau: Here were Kenyan athletes, many of whom approach running from a young age with the steely dedication of people who have seen firsthand how far the sport can take them. Then there were the refugees, for whom running was a new dream laid thinly over earlier ambitions to become doctors, filmmakers, or lawyers. 

“Kenyan runners know what’s possible – they’ve seen other people who come from where they come from succeed at this before,” Anzrah says. “The refugees don’t have anything like that.” 

There were other problems, too. The runners got homesick – not for their home countries but for the refugee camps where many had spent the bulk of their young lives. There was the unfamiliarity with the most basic conveniences. 

“The shoes,” Ms. Nadai says. “We had never worn running shoes before.”

Slowly, members of the original group began to drop out. Many – particularly the women – had been breadwinners for large extended families in the camps and couldn’t afford to be away. And Kenya wasn’t an easy place to train – even the local track meets that Anzrah entered his runners in were studded with Olympians and world-record holders.

 “You feel a lot of pressure because you feel like you’re an ambassador for all the refugees in Kakuma, maybe even all the refugees in the world,” says Pur Biel Yiech, who thought constantly of his 15-year-old cousin, whom he carried with him when he fled southern Sudan 10 years ago. “If you fail, you aren’t just shaming yourself, you’re shaming them all. And that is a lot of stress to feel before you race.” 

In between races, the runners found ways to distract themselves so doubt wouldn’t creep in. Nadai taught herself to crochet – giant blue and orange doilies – and devoured romance novels. Diep scoured the Internet for South Sudanese music videos – brightly colored dance shows that seemed, to his great delight, to almost always feature the vividly patterned longhorn cattle that make him nostalgic for home.

“When you forget where you came from, that’s when you really become a useless person,” he says, his eyes flicking across a shot of a herd of cattle, their lean bodies gauzy against a backdrop of a hundred burning cooking fires. 

Somali Mohamed Daudi Abubakar, meanwhile, spent his off time waiting for his phone to buzz and his wife in Kakuma to send him another photo of their newborn daughter, Sabrina. She had been born in the camp only a week earlier. 

“You don’t know the world until you have children,” he says, laughing at a new photo of his other two daughters, 3-year-old Aisha and 2-year-old Sumaya, wearing floral hijabs and slumped against each other giggling. 

For his family at home in Somalia, running is still something of a perplexing ambition. He tells them he’s going to be the next great Somali distance runner, but he says it doesn’t really stick. “When I make it, then they will see,” he says.  

Indeed, looming over all of daily life here is the question of the final Olympic selection. Most of those chosen will likely be wild cards – athletes admitted without the requisite Olympic qualifying times to ensure geographical diversity and global participation at the Games. Loroupe and Anzrah will send them a list of their athletes’ best clocked times in races, and the committee will determine who competes in the Olympics. 

With only five to 10 slots open globally, that means only a fraction of the athletes here are likely to qualify. For those who don’t, the stakes are much higher than for most near-miss Olympians. Loroupe has promised to extend the training camp indefinitely. But if they can’t make it as professional athletes, many of the runners worry that they’ll end up back where they started: in a refugee camp on the edge of the world. 

“Life in Dadaab was not bad, but it wasn’t good either,” Diep says. “You are there because there is no other option. Now there is another one, and it’s running.” 

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