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The Olympians Who Want Peace More Than Gold

South Sudan’s athletes swapped their dingy refugee camps in Kenya for the glamourous suburbs of Brazil in the hope of highlighting the war that has ravaged their country.

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In the space of four months, a small group of athletes will have gone full circle – from the tough life in refugee camps, where sometimes food is rationed, to rubbing shoulders with the world’s most celebrated names in world-class facilities.

This is the strange reality for South Sudan’s Olympic athletes.

Being at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro for three weeks will be a completely new experience for these young athletes, who might never have got to the world’s largest sport event if they were not refugees.

Even their compatriots in South Sudan are stunned  how the athletes got access to an arena reserved for the crème de la crème of international sports.

Olympic Villages have world-class infrastructure, with beautiful apartments, paved roads, working sewerage systems, hospitals, and shopping centers.

For the five young men and women from South Sudan, this is a far cry from the refugee camps they come from. Here, the refugees live in tin-walled houses, with little sanitation. The camp is littered with long-drop toilets, although refugees prefer to use thickets and bushes, leading to the rampant outbreak of deadly diseases are rampant. They are conditions the majority of athletes at the Olympic Games will find unimaginable.

The civil war has destroyed South Sudan’s economy. Before the current bloodletting resumed in early July, the newly-formed Transitional Government of National Unity asked for international support to rebuild the country. The conflict has halved oil production which, coupled with the global decline in oil prices, has left the government short of cash.

Although better than living among warlords, life inside refugee camps is not for the faint-hearted. Roads are dusty and rough. Some schools within the camps have sports fields, but the lack of grass makes playing on them difficult.

These young athletes will leave these fields of dirt and be welcomed to Rio with roads lined with exotic flowers and trees. The Olympic Village’s gardens rivals those found in Buckingham Palace.

When those inside the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps heard their brothers and sisters would be at the Rio Olympics, they burst into ecstatic celebration. The five South Sudanese refugees were selected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to form part of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Athletes team. The other athletes making up the 10-man team are two judokas from the Democratic Republic of Congo, a marathon runner from Ethiopia and two swimmers from Syria.

The President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, says the team will raise awareness of the refugee crisis, which, according to the United Nations, stands at over 59 million displaced people.

“This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society,” says Bach.

Kenyan marathon legend Tegla Loroupe, who founded the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, identified the South Sudanese athletes that will make up the rest of the refugee team. They are Pur Biel Yiech (800m), James Nyak (400m/800m), Rose Nathike (800m), Angeline Nadai Lohalith (1,500m) and Paulo Amoton Lokoro (1,500m).

The athletes have tear-jerking stories. They fled to neighboring Kenya as civil war erupted in Africa’s youngest nation, where compatriots supporting rival leaders were tearing into one another with machetes and guns. Girls and women were raped, property vandalized and homes looted. Tens of thousands died and many more were displaced. The survivors, mostly orphans and widows, were forced to cross into Kenyan camps.

The athletes are unified in their call for peace. They say this would allow many more young South Sudanese to pursue their dreams – whether in academics, sport or business.

“I would be representing my country in the Olympics had there been peace in my country. While other athletes will be carrying their countries’ flags, which is an honor and prestige, we will be participating under the Olympic Flag. That is good, and we are grateful to the IOC for remembering refugees, but sometime in the future, I would wish to run under the South Sudanese flag,” says Lohalith, who left home in 2001 and reached Kakuma the following year.

Lohalith started running for fun while attending primary school inside the Kakuma camp. She was among those scouted by Loroupe and transferred to Nairobi for specialized coaching.

Lohalith believes the refugee team at the Olympics will inspire other displaced people, even if they don’t win medals.

“It will be the first time refugees are represented in the Olympics, which will inspire other refugees because they will realize that they are just like normal people,” she says.

Jackson Pkemoi, who is managing the team at the church-run Anita Children’s Home in Ngong, 20 kilometers south of Nairobi, says the athletes are not taking the selection for granted.

“It is never easy to make an Olympic team. These athletes appreciate that this is a godsend, an opportunity to join the rest of the world at the Olympics,” he says.

Lokoro is glad he will be able to represent the refugees he lives with in his camp.

“When the refugees, and our people at Kakuma camp, heard of this, they were proud and celebrated. They are happy for us,” says Lokoro.

Nathike, who escaped her war-ravaged country with her parents, is running to help those she left behind.

“My people are happy and praying that I perform well so that I can change their lives,” she says. “Since we have talent, this can help promote peace all over the world.”

Nyak sent a massage to warring factions.

“Fighting is not the right way for people to solve issues. The more people fight, the more young people who have talent run away from home. So those countries [that] have conflict have to sit down and see where the problem is because this affects so many countries,” he says.

While their competitors are running for gold, these athletes from South Sudan are competing for something more important – peace.

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