INTERVIEW-A year after Rio Olympics, refugee athletes ready to fight for medals

by Matthew Ponsford | @mjponsford | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 11 August 2017 12:16 GMT

Refugee athletes take part in a training session during this year's IAAF World Athletics Championships in London on August 4, 2017. Claire Thomas/UNHCR/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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"It's not about running ... It's about putting in the work"

By Matthew Ponsford

LONDON, Aug 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Distance runner Kadar Omar crossed the finish line of the men's 5,000 metre race at the World Athletics Championships in London this week and ran straight into the open arms of one of his sporting heroes.

Completing a personal best time as night began to fall on a rain-soaked track in the former Olympic stadium, 21-year-old Omar embraced Mo Farah, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the 5000 metre and 10,000 metre events.

"He was waiting for me there," Omar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation about the moment he met the 34-year-old British veteran, who had finished the race ahead in second place.

"He understands what it means to be a runner. It's not just about winning. He said: 'Good race. You did the journey, and never gave up.'"

But Omar, one of the five competitors at the championships from the Athlete Refugee Team (ART), a group of 26 refugees supported by the United Nations' refugee agency's (UNHCR), said he will not be satisfied for long just to finish.

The refugee team, which represents the more than 65 million displaced persons around the world, has made headlines with determined performances at the highest level since a debut outing at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

But Omar said the team had no desire to continue training only to provide warm-hearted moments of participation, and aims to join the likes of Farah, challenging for the world's top athletics titles.

"There's a lot of people behind us, and to inspire them, it's not about running and every year coming in after other athletes. It's about putting in the work. It's about sometimes getting in front and winning."

Refugee athlete Kadar Omar Abdullahi competes in the 5000m men's heats at the 2017 IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Stadium in London on August 9, 2017. UNHCR/Claire Thomas/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

CLOSING THE GAP

The 2017 IAAF World Championships are a curtain call on winning careers for Farah, who fled Somaliland as a child refugee to settle in Britain, and fellow Olympic champion Usian Bolt, who runs his final competitive race on Saturday.

But Omar said he hopes the competition is a new beginning for the ART team, if an uncertain one.

This year's championships are the first time in the event's 34-year history that refugees have taken part under the ART banner, almost a year to the day since first competing in Rio.

Sitting restlessly in a team refugee tracksuit in a cafe by London's Tower Bridge with teammate Anjelina Lohalith, Omar speaks in a steely voice about the athletes' progress, including his success outpacing four national team runners to finish 17th.

The two runners in the London team to have competed in Rio have shown rapid improvement, said Omar - highlighting Lohalith, a 23-year-old middle distance runner originally from South Sudan, who cut almost 15 seconds from her time in Brazil.

But to get on the same level as their elite counterparts by the next Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 they must start closing the gulf between the slick training regimes of national teams and the RAP's rudimentary facilities.

Omar, a refugee from Ethiopia's Oromo ethnic group, was discovered less than two years ago by a charity run by Kenyan former marathon runner Tegla Chepkite Loroupe, running on a dirt track in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

While the team, mentored by Laroupe, is beginning to build a gym for the athletes at their training camp in Nairobi, Lohalith said one-on-one coaching and regular competition at major international events are still a way off.

Dana Hughes, UNHCR spokeswoman for the team, said the athletes face the same uncertain future as most refugee programmes amid a constant battle for funds.

So far UNHCR has secured only 21 percent of the $674 million needed this year to pay for essential food and supplies for camps for South Sudanese refugees, where most of the ART team were discovered, officials say.

(Reporting by Matthew Ponsford, Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)