They did not perform exceptionally well at the 2017 London World Championships, but the five runners forming the Athletes Refugee Team (ART) have retained their presence on the global sporting stage, besides improving their individual performances.
Their story portrays the harsh reality that political mismanagement creates in Africa, while at the same time reaffirming the cardinal principle of sports as a unifying factor and number one equaliser.
The team was started by Kenya’s marathon legend, Tegla Loroupe, herself a product of warring tribes of Turkana and Pokot from where she developed the theme and founded the Tegla Lourupe Peace Foundation to help contain cattle rustling.
The refugees participated at last year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, as a project of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to sensitise the world on the plight of refugees and some 65 million displaced persons around the world. Five ART athletes have been competing at these championships, but are living in the shadows of their more celebrated counterparts, first because of no remarkable performances, and secondly because they don’t represent any country. They are flying UN Refugees flag. Yet their story is more compelling than the athletes representing different nationalities. They are not even tainted by doping scandals or age cheating. Theirs is a human face to the sport. The daily suffering visited upon innocent citizens by their politicians.
“We are representing refugees. We are spreading the message of peace around the world, the voice of refugees, which is largely unheard,” Rose Lokonyen, 22, said.
Lokonyen participated in the women’s 800m preliminaries on Thursday and finished last in the last heat, which was won by Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba in 1:59.86. Lokonyen timed 2:20.06.
John Anzrah, who is their coach attributed this to a slight muscle injury the athlete, who originated from South Sudan, suffered during training in Nairobi, where they are under the wings of Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation. Dominic Lokinyomo, 18, was 12th in the men’s second 1,500m preliminary race in a personal best time of 3:52.78, and in the process, he beat Richard Douma of the Netherlands.
Kadar Omar, 21, was probably the most successful, beating athletes from Kenya, South Sudan Mauritania and Somalia, although he finished 17th in the 5,000m qualification. His time of 14:32.67 was also a personal best. Ethiopia’s Yomif Kejelcha won the race in 13:30.07 with Britain’s Mo Farah second.
Angeline Nadi, 15, also finished last in the women’s 1,500m preliminary which was won by Kenya’s Faith Chepngetich, who eventually won the gold medal.
Ahmaed Bashir Farah, 20, was also last in the men’s 800m preliminary, timing 1:50.04, where Kenya’s Emmanuel Korir won in 1:47.08.
“Most of them have been steadily improving on their performances. Very soon, they will surprise other athletes,” said Anzrah.
“In Nairobi, we were allowed to train together with Kenyan stars like (Asbel) Kiprop and (David) Rudisha. This impacted very positively on the team,” he said.
Nathike urges leaders to maintain peace and avoid sending their people outside their countries. “Some people take peace for granted. Kenyan leaders should especially avoid situation like South Sudan, Somalia or DRC,” she said. IAAF President Lord Seb Coe said they will continue supporting the refugees team to help them overcome their challenges.