Refugees’ long, in­spir­ing road to Rio’s world stage

Ath­letes will run un­der the Olympic flag, as they have no coun­try

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - TOM ODULA,

They were used to run­ning barefoot on bak­ing ground. They were raw, un­trained. All ea­ger.

Each day, the five run­ners who grew up in the Kakuma refugee camp pounded the dusty tracks past thou­sands of makeshift tents to pass the time. Un­til there was a life­line. Work­ers from the foun­da­tion of former marathon world-record holder Tegla Loroupe ar­rived to hold ath­letic tri­als, and the five ex­celled. For this group of run­ners, many with no fam­ily and all with lit­tle school­ing, run­ning could of­fer food, a solid house. Proper shoes.

“When I started the project, I said ‘What can I do with these peo­ple?’” coach Volker Wag­ner said. What he didn’t have to worry about was their “ea­ger­ness to run.”

The five run­ners are refugees, five of 65 mil­lion across the world who have been dis­placed from their homes. Now, they’re also track ath­letes, and they’re go­ing to the Olympics.

The run­ners, all from South Su­dan, are part of the IOC’s first 10mem­ber refugee team. It’s a team of ath­letes whose roads to Rio de Janeiro have surely been harder, but whose jour­neys might ul­ti­mately be more heart­warm­ing, than any of the other 10,000-plus ath­letes who will com­pete at the globe’s big­gest sports event.

“When we go to Rio we are go­ing to give a mes­sage that a refugee can do any­thing any other hu­man be­ing can do,” said Yiech Pur Biel, a 21year-old 800-me­tre run­ner who now trains with the group at a base in the foothills just out­side of the Kenyan cap­i­tal of Nairobi.

The refugee team is made up of sports­men and women who have talent and drive, and the same dreams of com­pet­ing on the world’s largest stage as ath­letes from all over the globe. But they have no way of rep­re­sent­ing their coun­tries, coun­tries they were forced to flee. So they’ve been given a flag, the Olympic flag, to march be­hind at the open­ing cer­e­mony in Rio and to com­pete un­der at the games.

They have sto­ries of un­fath­omable hard­ship.

Yiech was a 9-year-old boy caught up in the Su­danese civil war in 2005 when his mother — with no food and no other hope — left him with a neigh­bour and went in search of some­thing to eat for her fam­ily. She didn’t come back. Yiech was sent, alone, to the vast Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya.

James Nyang Chiengjiek wasn’t much older, a child who herded cat­tle, when sol­diers tried to kid­nap him and force him to go to war. He ran away and also ended up at Kakuma, a camp teem­ing at one time with nearly 200,000 peo­ple, all home­less, many of them hope­less.

Scram­bling to hide when her vil­lage was at­tacked by a ri­val tribe, Rose Nathike Lokonyen came across the dead bod­ies of her grand­par­ents. She was 7.

Paulo Amo­tun Kokoro’s child­hood me­mories are of run­ning, but not for fun or for sport. He ran for his life as bul­lets whizzed past his head.

An­jelina Nadai Lo­halith was sep­a­rated from her par­ents as a child more than a decade ago. The 21year-old hasn’t heard from them since, and can only hope that the news passed on to her that they are still alive is true.

“What I want to be is a cham­pion,” said Nadai Lo­halith, whose event is the 1,500 me­tres. “One day, one time.” She hopes for a suc­cess­ful Olympics but, more than that, a re­union with the par­ents she hasn’t seen in more than 10 years.

The rest of the team is made up of two swim­mers from war-torn Syria who, sep­a­rately, made the treach­er­ous voy­age across the Aegean Sea on flimsy in­flat­able boats to reach Europe.

They then trekked from coun­try to coun­try seek­ing shel­ter.

There are two ju­dokas from Congo, res­cued from war as chil­dren only to be abused, starved and locked in cages by their han­dlers as they pur­sued a sport they loved. And a marathon run­ner who left Ethiopia in fear for his life, who now drives a taxi in Lux­em­bourg.

He trains alone, and still wins.

KHALIL SENOSI, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Paulo Amo­tun Kokoro, left fore­ground, runs dur­ing a train­ing ses­sion in Ngong, Kenya.

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