World First Look

Olympic refugee team looks to 2020 games with ambitious mindset

One year after Rio, members of the Athlete Refugee Team (ART) have their sights on the Tokyo Games, aiming to deliver more than just 'warm-hearted moments of participation.'

Images of projection mapping are illuminated on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building during the Tokyo 2020 flag tour festival for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, on July 24, 2017.
Shizuo Kambayashi/AP
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  • Matthew Ponsford
    Thomson Reuters Foundation

Distance runner Kadar Omar crossed the finish line of the men's 5,000 meter race at the World Athletics Championships in London this week and ran straight into the open arms of one of his sporting heroes.

Completing a personal best time as night began to fall on a rain-soaked track in the former Olympic stadium, 21-year-old Mr. Omar embraced Mo Farah, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 5000 meter and 10,000 meter events.

"He was waiting for me there," Omar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the moment he met the 34-year-old British veteran, who had finished the race ahead in second place.

"He understands what it means to be a runner. It's not just about winning. He said: 'Good race. You did the journey, and never gave up.' "

But Omar, one of the five competitors at the championships from the Athlete Refugee Team (ART), a group of 26 refugees supported by the United Nations' refugee agency's (UNHCR), said he will not be satisfied for long just to finish.

The refugee team, which represents the more than 65 million displaced persons around the world, has made headlines with determined performances at the highest level since a debut outing at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But Omar said the team had no desire to continue training only to provide warm-hearted moments of participation, and aims to join the likes of Mr. Farah, challenging for the world's top athletics titles.

"There's a lot of people behind us, and to inspire them, it's not about running and every year coming in after other athletes. It's about putting in the work. It's about sometimes getting in front and winning."

Closing the gap

The 2017 IAAF World Championships are a curtain call on winning careers for Farah, who fled Somaliland as a child refugee to settle in Britain, and fellow Olympic champion Usian Bolt, who runs his final competitive race on Saturday.

But Omar said he hopes the competition is a new beginning for the ART team, if an uncertain one.

This year's championships are the first time in the event's 34-year history that refugees have taken part under the ART banner, almost a year to the day since first competing in Rio.

Sitting restlessly in a team refugee tracksuit in a cafe by London's Tower Bridge with teammate Anjelina Lohalith, Omar speaks in a steely voice about the athletes' progress, including his success outpacing four national team runners to finish 17th.

The two runners in the London team to have competed in Rio have shown rapid improvement, said Omar – highlighting Ms. Lohalith, a 23-year-old middle distance runner originally from South Sudan, who cut almost 15 seconds from her time in Brazil.

But to get on the same level as their elite counterparts by the next Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 they must start closing the gulf between the slick training regimes of national teams and the RAP's rudimentary facilities.

Omar, a refugee from Ethiopia's Oromo ethnic group, was discovered less than two years ago by a charity run by Kenyan former marathon runner Tegla Chepkite Loroupe, running on a dirt track in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

While the team, mentored by Ms. Laroupe, is beginning to build a gym for the athletes at their training camp in Nairobi, Lohalith said one-on-one coaching and regular competition at major international events are still a way off.

Dana Hughes, UNHCR spokeswoman for the team, said the athletes face the same uncertain future as most refugee programs amid a constant battle for funds.

So far UNHCR has secured only 21 percent of the $674 million needed this year to pay for essential food and supplies for camps for South Sudanese refugees, where most of the ART team were discovered, officials say. 

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.