We can win anything if we believe in ourselves
The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro ended yesterday. This year saw the first Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), a group of 10 displaced athletes who competed against the world’s best sportsmen and women. They didn’t win any gold medals, but as our review shows, their stories, their courage and their hopes move the world – and their dreams are worth far more than silver and gold.
“It’s every athletes dream to be in Rio,” said the Syrian swimmer Rami Anis. “We’ve been dreaming of the Olympic Games since we were kids. Each one of us wanted to participate under our own country’s flag, but war has prevented that. We’re proud to be part of the Refugee Olympic Team.”
It is more than a year ago now that members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) started thinking about a kind of team that had never been seen before. A total of 43 athletes were up for selection, which took place in accordance with IOC criteria: men and women with a refugee status recognised by the United Nations, with suitable sporting achievements under their belts, and with an appropriate biographical background.
All of them are living in exile, having found a temporary home for themselves after fleeing their home countries. Raheleh Asemani, who has been living in Belgium after fleeing Iran three years ago, was one of them. The Tae Kwando fighter worked in the post office and trained hard to qualify for Rio. She had already made it into the group of 43 when she received her Belgian citizenship in the spring of 2016, which meant that in the end she competed in Rio for her country – Belgium – rather than as a refugee.
National Olympic Committees, the UN Refugee Agency and various other organisations supported the IOC in its choice of athletes. Together, they selected 10 sportsmen and women for the ROT: five track-and-field athletes from South Sudan, one from Ethiopia, two judo athletes from the Democratic Republic of Congo and two swimmers from Syria. They were the penultimate team to enter the opening ceremony – right in front of their Brazilian hosts. In the absence of a joint flag, Rose Nathike Lokonyen carried the Olympic banner to the sounds of the Olympic hymn. The 800-metre runner comes from South Sudan, is currently living in Kenya and has astonished many, as she only started running in shoes a year ago, rather than training barefoot.
“If God gives you a talent, you have to use it,” said the 400-metre runner James Nyang Chiengjiek, who fled South Sudan aged 13 to avoid being kidnapped and forced into a life as a child soldier. Chiengjiek landed in neighbouring Kenya and went to school there. He met a group of older boys who were training for long-distance running and joined in. “We all had lots of blisters and sore feet because we had to borrow each other’s shoes,” he said. He wants to use his participation in Rio to inspire others. “If I run well then I’m doing something good, particularly for refugees,” he said. “We have to look and see where our brothers and sisters are, and if they’re talented we can motivate them to train with us and make their lives better too.”
Like Chiengjiek, track-and-field athlete Rose Nathike Lokonyen comes from South Sudan and is now living in Kenya. She was 10 when she fled her home country. Until a little over a year ago she had never competed. A teacher in the refugee camp discovered her talent and encouraged her to race. “I hadn’t trained at all,” she said. “It was the first time I’d ever run – and I came second. That was an incredible surprise.” Her debut run was 10,000 metres. On 17 August, she was on the starting line for the 800-metre event.
Paulo Lokoro also has his roots in South Sudan and is now living in Kenya. It was here that he met Tegla Loroupe who grew up with her father’s five wives and 25 brothers and sisters. At the age of seven, she was already running 10 kilometres to school in the morning and 10 kilometres back home in the afternoon. It was Loroupe, a dainty athlete, who trained Lokoro for the 1,500-metre race on 16 August. “I want to be world champion,” said Lokoro, a sign he’d like to put his former life as a cowherd behind him.
The 1,500-metre runner Anjelina Lohalith is also hoping that sport can help her start a new life. “Everything was destroyed,” she said, remembering the time she had to leave her village in South Sudan as a six-year-old girl. She was taken to Kenya and hasn’t seen her parents since. At some point she discovered her love of athletics and was encouraged by her first successes. “If you have money, you can change your life,” she says. “You don’t have to continue being what you were.” Asked what she would do after a big win, she replied, ”I’d build my father a nicer house.”
Like Paulo Lokoro, Yiech Biel also trained under Tegla Loroupe’s wings. Loroupe set two world records in the marathon and is a three-time world champion in the half-marathon. Today, she coaches athletes like Biel and Lokoro and trained Biel for his 800-metre race. After leaving South Sudan in 2005, Biel spent 10 years in a refugee centre in northern Kenya. “Many of us have big challenges to overcome,” he says. “There’s nothing in the camp – not even schools. There’s no sports hall. Even the weather seems to be against our training, as it’s blisteringly hot and sunny from morning to evening.”
The moderate climatic conditions in which marathon runner Yonas Kinde trains are undoubtedly more comfortable. After fleeing Ethiopia, he has been living for around five years in Luxembourg where he works as a taxi driver. Last October, he ran a marathon in Germany in 2:17 hours. He doubled his training sessions after learning about the idea of an Olympic refugee team. “The fact that young, displaced athletes are giving their best here is a great message,” he says. “Of course we have problems, but we can do everything we can in the camps to help out refugee athletes.” Kinde competed in the men’s marathon event in Rio on 21 August.
Popole Misenga already has one Olympic success story under his belt. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he represented his home country in the 2013 World Judo Championships in Brazil and sought asylum while he was there. Misenga was nine years old when his mother was murdered. He wandered through the rainforest without shelter for over a week until he was rescued and taken to an orphanage in Kinshasa. The now 24-year-old athlete has never seen his family since. “I have two brothers, but I don’t know what they look like,” he said. “I send them kisses and hugs.” His talent for judo emerged early. He completed his professional training and competed for the Congo at international events. “I’ve seen too much war, too much death,” he said. “I want to be free of it so that I can practice my sport.” In Rio, Misenga became the first ROT athlete to achieve Olympic success by winning his first bout.
“I’m very happy about this win,” he said afterwards. “I’ve competed against a world champion as a refugee and this world champion wasn’t up to it. I’m a winner! I think all refugees from the Congo will be happy. They will be asking themselves, ‘How did he do that?’ It’s because I wanted to win. Every refugee is a human being and we can win everything if we believe in ourselves.”
In 2013, team colleague Yolande Mabika joined Misenga in applying for asylum in Brazil. Their home trainers’ methods were rough und ruthless: torturous training sessions and measly food portions. Wins were praised, losses punished with brutality – being locked up and subjected to physical violence. At international competitions, athletes were confined to hotel rooms. Staff took their passports and wallets. In Rio, Mabika lost her bout against Linda Bolder, but she is nonetheless convinced of one thing: “We’re going to show that refugees can do everything that everyone else in the world can do.”
And sometimes even a bit more. Take Rami Anis, for example, who has finally reached a place where he can show off his competitive swimming skills. Anis lived with his family in Aleppo, Syria, where he was already training as a competitive athlete at the age of 14. Life in Aleppo was becoming increasingly dangerous, however, so in 2011 his parents made the decision to send their now 20-year-old and his older brothers to Turkey for a while. Anis continued to train in Istanbul but without Turkish citizenship was unable to compete for the country at official competitions. The escalating situation in Syria made it impossible to return, so Anis decided to flee to Greece in a dinghy. From Samos he made it to Ghent where he was granted asylum in December 2015. In Rio, he said what a “fantastic feeling” it was for him to be able to participate in the Olympic Games.
Like Anis, the Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini has also competed with the world’s best in Rio. The 18-year-old is “the face and voice of the team”. Her story is one of hunger, betrayal and fear – and incredible courage. Her strength and optimism are impressive.
On the Turkish coast one late evening, Yusra and her sister Sarah are fleeing to Greece in a dinghy. The small rubber boat is designed to take a maximum of six people, but there are 20 passengers on board, daring to make the crossing. The old engine stutters, coughs and chokes, then stops chugging. One more attempt to start it up again works then it’s over. The engine is silent. Waves slosh into the boat. Some of the passengers can’t swim. Yusra and Sarah dive valiantly into the sea, its colour as black as night. They take the line and pull the heaving dinghy with its terrified occupants behind them as they swim on. Two or three men support them, taking it in turns to do the swimming. One hour, two hours, three hours… it’s not until the start of the fourth hour that the exhausted girls finally feel the ground under their feet. It’s early in the morning and the sun is rising. They’ve done it. They go ashore in Lesbos.
Yusra and Sarah now live in Berlin. “Many people in Syria have lost their dreams,” says Yusra. “I hope that everyone can follow their dreams and achieve something good in the world.”
Everyone has won in Rio: the sportsmen and women via their participation and medals, and the rest of the world via the stories of athletes who deserve our attention and send a message of hope.