Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
This spring in Kenya, eight women have been training under world champion marathoner Tegla Loroupe, hoping to earn a spot on the Refugee Olympic Team in June.
Last year, when COVID-19 hit and the Olympics were postponed, their training was interrupted. The Tegla Loroupe Sport and Training Centre in Ngong, near Nairobi, was shut down, forcing the athletes back to the Kakuma refugee camp, where some of them grew up. But resilience is not a new concept for them.
Some of these athletes fled their home countries as young children nearly 20 years ago and have never returned. Loroupe knows what it’s like to grow up amid regional conflict. “We had refugee families living in our region, and I saw their struggle,” she says. They had a place to live, but no “opportunity to voice your voice or to share your talent other than going to school,” she says. “So I was trying to help them.”
Loroupe created the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in 2003 to promote peace through sport. She’s a firm believer in sport’s ability to both empower people individually and bring them together. She saw athletic potential at refugee camps, and in 2014, she petitioned the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to create a refugee team. They said yes, and she became the team’s Chef de Mission.
At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the 10 athletes on the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team walked into the stadium during the opening ceremony, with Rose Nathike Lokonyen bearing the team’s flag: the Olympic flag. She and Angelina Nadai Lohalith were the team’s two female runners; both trained with Loroupe and continue training with her now, gearing up for a chance to run in Tokyo.
This year, the Refugee Olympic Team will be noticeably larger. Thanks to the IOC’s refugee athlete scholarships, 55 athletes in 21 host countries have been training for the team in athletics, badminton, boxing, canoeing, cycling, judo, karate, taekwondo, shooting sport, swimming, weightlifting, and wrestling.
When the Kenyan government shut down sport camps, including the Ngong training center, the athletes worried about contracting COVID at the refugee camp, because social distancing was impossible. “Kakuma is not a conducive place for training, so they were struggling,” Loroupe says. But they stayed healthy.
About 10 months later, Loroupe’s training center reopened and the athletes returned. Although living at Kakuma hampered their training, they bounced back and competed at some races in Kenya earlier this year, including the National Cross-Country Championship in February, and improved their times significantly. About 20 athletes, men and women, live at the center and are focused on getting to Tokyo this summer.
The World Champion
Loroupe used to run to and from school as a child in Kenya. In 1994, she became the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon. She won races of various distances around the world, some of them while running barefoot. She competed at the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympics, and she broke the world record for the marathon in 1998. She held world records at shorter distances as well.
Loroupe remembers what it’s like to want shoes to run in and not have them. She gives back by providing shoes and support to athletes and refugees in larger ways. “When I see somebody who is struggling, if I have something to help, I always offer. Because at one point, I was looking for someone to help me,” she says.
At the Tokyo Olympics, Aliphine Tuliamuk and Sally Kipyego will be the first Black women to ever represent the U.S. in the marathon. Tuliamuk grew up in Kenya, and she received her first pair of shoes from Loroupe. So Loroupe is not only empowering a team of refugees in pursuing their Olympic dreams—she also had a hand in Tuliamuk’s journey to her first Olympics.
How does Loroupe feel about that? “I feel proud,” she says. Tuliamuk was a neighbor, and now she is a role model, Loroupe says.
The Olympic Hopefuls
The athletes at Ngong are training for a range of events. In the 2016 Olympics, Lohalith ran the 1500m, and Lokonyen ran the 800m. Both came to Kakuma from South Sudan in 2002 and showed their talent in a 10k that Loroupe’s foundation organized in 2015.
Now, Lokonyen is focused on the 800m again, and Lohalith is training for the 800m and 1500m. Their teammate Josephine Tain Augustino, who played football before turning to running, is training for the 1,500m. Clementina Ihure Rolando, who runs the 200m and 400m, came from South Sudan with her mother when she was only two months old. Growing up at Kakuma, she got into both football and running. Chagen Dang is training for the javelin. Lydia Philip Mamun runs the 800m, Rose Ihisa Uwaro the 200m and 400m, and Atalena Napule Gaspore the 1,500m. The team sometimes trains with Athletics Kenya athletes.
Some of these women say Loroupe gave them both a home and a chance, through running, and they want to continue to promote peace and hope through sport.
“Here in Kenya, we feel like it is like our home since we came a long time ago—some of us, we have never gone back to South Sudan,” Lokonyen said in an Olympics “Incoming Call” live chat that she, four of her teammates, Loroupe, and another coach participated in. They talked about life at the camp this year.
Along with their training, some of the athletes have school, and they work together to grow their own food, tending an expansive greenhouse full of cabbage, tomatoes, spinach—good for iron, Loroupe pointed out—and other crops, all without chemicals. A cook makes their meals from Monday through Saturday, but on Sundays, the athletes take turns cooking.
Their active rest includes working in the greenhouse and playing volleyball. “I like reading novels, listening to music, dancing . . . so my mind can be free,” Lohalith said during the live chat.
Some of the athletes say Kenya has become their homeland, and the community has accepted them as their own. They feel like they’re not just refugees.
The athletes get treated like human beings, not outcasts, Loroupe says. “It helps them to open their minds. And when you have a group of people, especially through sports or education . . . they show their talents, and also they get advice from different people,” she says. She sees these athletes becoming ambassadors who use their voices.
“[Sport] has the power to bring hope, to heal, and to help refugees of all ages overcome their trauma and recover their dignity and their lives,” says Christopher Boian, spokesperson for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. “At UNHCR, we support sports programs for all refugees, and we deeply admire the refugee athletes reaching for their personal best as they train for the refugee Olympics and Paralympics teams.”
Loroupe built the first Refugee Olympic Team, is shepherding the second, and gave another history-making first-time Olympian her first pair of shoes. She is not just nurturing athletic ability but opening doors around the world.