HIGH up in Kenya’s rugged Ngong Hills, refugees sprint around an athletics track in intensive training they hope will see them selected for a unique team for the Rio Olympics.
Hand-picked from Kenya’s vast refugee camps - including Dadaab, the biggest in the world - to join the training camp just outside the capital Nairobi, the athletes here have their eyes set on racing in Rio de Janeiro in August.
“It will be a very great moment for me and the rest of the refugees, who will be so proud for having produced one of their own who has gone to the Olympics,” said 22-year-old Nzanzumu Gaston Kiza, who fled Democratic Republic of Congo after his relatives were massacred in ethnic clashes.
Here at Ngong, a high altitude running track some 2,400 meters above sea level, some 40 kilometres southwest of Nairobi, athletes from across eastern Africa are chasing the dream of the Olympics.
Amid a world record number of people forced from their homes and their countries, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) this month announced the creation and funding of Team Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA) to compete in Rio under its flag.
The team, expected to include between five to 10 athletes from across the world, is part of the IOC’s “pledge to aid potential elite athletes affected by the worldwide refugee crisis”.
“Team ROA” will march just before the hosts Brazil enter the Olympic Stadium at the opening ceremony - carrying the Olympic flag and anthem - a position likely to be given enormous cries of support.
Message of Hope
While countries may field their own teams, the refugees are unable to return home safely to take part - and instead will run under the Olympic flag.
“We want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world,” IOC president Thomas Bach said when plans for the team were announced.
At this camp in Kenya - training in fierce equatorial sunshine at high altitudes that would leave many breathless - athletes include runners from DR Congo as well as war-torn South Sudan and Somalia.
“It is a very good opportunity for us,” said 22-year-old Angelina Ndai, a 1500-metre hopeful from South Sudan. “I will feel so proud to be there and to be recognised as a South Sudanese.”
It is not the first time athletes have run under the IOC flag: fellow South Sudanese Guor Mading Maker ran in the London 2012 marathon as an independent Olympian—under the name Guor Marial.
At that time, newly independent South Sudan had not yet been accepted as an IOC member. Today it is a member, but Ndai is among the more than two million people forced to flee the world’s youngest nation, which has been in civil war for more than two years.
“We are here, and we believe we will move forward,” Ndai said.
The athletes’ abilities are in no doubt, but it has been far from easy for most to shift from the crowded camps to the track.
Runners picked up injuries at the initial stages, with many forced to quit to return to the refugee camps.
“We have been training hard, even though our bodies have been responding negatively, because we got lots of injuries,” Ndai told AFP.
Former Kenyan Olympic team coach John Anzrah is in charge of moulding the refugees into quality Olympic material capable of challenging elite athletes in Rio.
“When the athletes came here, they not in shape, they were a zero,” Anzrah told AFP.
“We should remember that these were people living in camps and we had to start them from somewhere.”
The talent is there
But he is hopeful of their potential, and singles out runner Mohammed Daud Abubakar from war-torn Somalia as his best bet to succeed in Rio.
Team-mates say Abubakar bears a resemblance to Britain’s Somalia-born two-time World and Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion, Mo Farah, and is so desperate to compete against his namesake, they have given him the same nickname.
“I want to be one of the great runners in the world, so Rio is the big one,” Abubakar said.
“You know, Mo is Somali, and I am Somali, and I would be very happy to be like him in the coming years, and if it is possible, in Rio.”
But training to win a place is tough.
Kenya’s Olympic chief and IOC board member, Kipchoge Keino, said the runners must have good qualifying times to be considered for the team.
But the refugee runners are already competing alongside Kenyan national weekend track and field meetings organised by Athletics Kenya, with a final decision to be made in June on who will go to Rio.
Keino hopes as many as six athletes, three men and three women, could be chosen.
“We might be seeing one of those kids coming up with a gold… the talent is there and everything is mentally and physically how you approach it,” he said.
He also believes it will send a strong message to the countries they have come from - noting that if they win a medal, it will be the IOC or United Nations flag that will be raised, not that of their homeland.
“I think it is important for those refugees to take part and the country they belonged to will see that they had a talent they kicked out,” Keino said. “The refugee world will be saying, ‘We had a refugee representing us’.”