It was the United States that took home the gold in the Men’s 4x800m final at the 2017 IAAF/BTC World Relays Bahamas held on the 22nd and 23rd of April. The last leg of the event turned out to be a one- to- one between Clayton Murphy of the US and Ferguson Rotich of Kenya and just like in the Olympic Finals last year, the American overpowered the fight with Rotich to clinch the first position with 7:13.16. Kenya had to settle with silver in 7:13.70. Poland finished third in 7:18.74 followed by Australia 7:20.10 and Mexico 7:20.92. Qatar was at the sixth position with 7:28.25.
However it was not the medallists or the favourites who were in demand. This round of the International Associations of Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Relays was special in a way. All eyes were set only on one team – the Athletes Refugee Team. This team of four athletes from South Sudan – Gai Nyang Tap, Paulo Amotun Lokoro, Wiyual Puok Deng and Dominic Lokinyomo Lobalu finished 7th with a record of 8:12.57 in the 4x800m category. As soon as the anchor, Dominic Lokinyomo, approached the finish line the entire crowd present at the Thomas A Robinson Stadium was on its feet cheering and applauding. Even their fellow contestants were encouraging and appreciating their efforts. This team had hogged the entire limelight! The athletes are very grateful to the IAAF for their efforts to give them the opportunity to participate. “We’ve never run in this type of relay before so it was all new,” said Amotun. “We didn’t run that well, but with this experience, we will go home and keep working and everything will be good.”
This was the second time that a team of refugees had competed in an international tournament. Previously a team of 10 refugee athletes belonging to different countries had taken part in the 2016 Rio Olympics Sport as the ‘Refugee Olympic Team’. With this tournament the athlete refugee team has marked it’s debut in World Relays. The team’s participation was made possible by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in alliance with the IAAF’s Athletics for a Better World programme. In 2014 the IAAF had granted the foundation $20,000 to build a refugee team. They were given extra funds to make sure a refugee team participates in Nassau.
Each team member has a different story of how they escaped danger. In the process some got separated while some had to cope with the death of their loved ones. They belong to different nations but together in sports they are one – the athletes. It was their circumstances and love for the same sport that united them. They don’t represent any nation but in fact they represent refugees all over the world to let the world know that they are HUMANS who once had normal lives and what happened to them could have happened to anyone. They are a symbol of hope for all those who are displaced.
The 25 year old Gai Nyang ran the first leg of the race. An 800m specialist, Nyang has been training at the Loroupe camp for the past two years. After fleeing South Sudan, Nyang spent several years in Ethiopia where unfortunately his father was killed in a conflict. It did not stop there. He was forced to flee Ethiopia and find refuge at a camp in Kakuma after his tribe was targeted in a series of attacks. He spent 3 days in hiding in a room. The camp was just 5km away, but so dangerous was the situation that it took 18 days to finally reach. It was at the Kakuma camp that Nyang realised his passion for athletics. He also had the talent to pursue his passion. He then relocated to the Loroupe camp. Nyang’s talent was spotted while playing football. “I ran on the wing a lot and people would always say: ‘why are you playing football? You can be a runner.’” That was how he was encouraged to take to running.
Paulo Amotun Lokoro
Paulo Amotun, 25 years, is the most experienced player of the team. After all he has participated in the elitist of all games – the 2016 Rio Olympics. “It was an amazing experience, meeting so many international runners,” says Amotun. “To get a lot of advice, seeing the food world class runners eat and how they train – when I came back to the camp I met my colleagues and told them all the stories.” Amotun also called ‘Diaby’ after Abou Diaby, the French player who played for Arsenal, is also known for his prowess in the sport. Amotun was separated from his parents when they were forced to flee Sudan. For several years he was staying with his uncle before reuniting with his parents at a refugee camp.
Wiyual Puok ran the third leg for the team. He left Sudan in 2012 shortly after a war broke out in which he lost his mother and sister. Left all to himself and finding it difficult to cope with the loss, he fled to join the refugee camp in Kakuma. He has had a previous experience of competing in a 4x100m race at the National stadium in Nairobi.
Dominic Lokinyomo was the team’s anchor athlete. He left South Sudan in 2007 and has lived in Kenya since then. He was separated from his sister for the past 10 years before the siblings were reunited finally only in last December.
Traumatic experiences, insecurity, uncertainty, death are factors that have defined their recent life. They’ve been barred from the comforts of life for no fault of their own. Circumstances have forced them to leave their homeland. In such a drastic situation, sport is a powerful tool which binds them together and ignites their spirit. It gives them hope, a will to live and look forward to another day. Engaging in sports provides them with a channel to relieve their stress. And at the same time it sends a message across the world to all the refugees that no matter what there is always a way out. You have to move on because life never stops. The United Nations and the International Olympic Committee are working dedicatedly towards introducing sports programmes in the various refugee camps. Creating opportunities and encouraging refugees to participate in sports is their motto. There are numerous groups and NGOs who are constantly investing time and resources for the development of such programmes at the refugee camps. Participating in the various activities helps them to socialize and forget their past.
“Sport is for peace,” says Gai Nyang. “There should be no corruption, no tribalism, just peace when we compete. It was hard for us to get here but we are really thankful to the Tegla Peace Foundation and the IAAF for all their help.” “There are many ways to be a refugee,” says Nyang. “It’s not about being a victim of a war crisis. Even if you’re out of your country, it’s important that nothing stops you doing the thing you want to do.”