European ties threaten refugees’ Olympic dream

European ties threaten refugees’ Olympic dream

South Sudanese athletes who competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics under the inaugural category of Refugee Olympic Team have a lot to worry for in their preparation for Tokyo Olympics slated for July this year.

The problem emerged after Chef de Mission for the Olympic Refugee Team, Tegla Loroupe, raised concerns that athletes who competed under the category and opted to change their allegiance to European countries could be barred from this year’s games.

Loroupe—Kenyan long distance race track world olympic champion— told the BBC that the competition risked soiling its reputation, and could lose prestigious sponsorships if athletes continue changing their citizenship.

In 2016, Loroupe played a role in ensuring that refugees were represented in the Rio Olympic Games. Five South Sudanese who resided in Kenya and trained at Ngong camp were part of the 10 athletes who competed in the Olympics.

‘‘Ten refugee athletes were ultimately selected to make up the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team. Acting as a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide and bringing global attention to the refugee crisis, the athletes took part in the Olympic Games Rio 2016, marching and competing under the Olympic flag,’’ International Olympic Committee (IOC) noted of the Rio event in the website.  

Things change

But once airborne and later done with the games, some competitors opt to stay in Europe and seek greener pastures there. According to Loroupe, this comes with a burden of having to justify the rationale of having the program whose prestige hangs in the balance.

She lamented that the precedent had blocked another lot—hopeful of shining in this year’s games—from acquiring visas.

“They cannot go [to Tokyo2020] because if you give them the opportunity to run in the Olympics, then you are encouraging more people to do wrong things.”

“What they did has blocked other athletes from getting visas, because now nobody trusts the other refugees. They do not see that they leave a very bad image. They kill the trust,’’ she said as she warned athletes who had opted to star in Europe as quoted by BBC.

She proceeded, “We could lose some of the partners, which is not good for the project and the upcoming athletes. The government and embassies are also partners, it’s like you are just playing around with the support of the nation.”

Gai Nyang, a South Sudanese who runs 800 metres defended the move saying the refugees have plans for their lives which rise above the confines of the camp. Nonetheless, he was grateful to Kenya for providing him a safe haven.

“The dream of all the athletes in the refugee team is not just to go to the Olympics, but to qualify through achieving the standards demanded of the regular athletes. Then to have a life beyond that,” BBC quotes home saying.

The team

On June 20, 2019, during World Refugee Day, the IOC released the Refugee Olympic Team which would compete in the 2020 (now 2021) Olympics.

In the list comprising 37 athletes are 13 individuals from the Tegla Loroupe Refugee Training Centre, which nurtures a number of South Sudanese runners.

They include: Ubaa Dinta Achoto (800m/1500m), Dominic Lokolong Atiol (1,500m), Josephine Augustinho (1,500), Yiech Pur Biel (800m), Ukuk Uth’o Bul (5,000m), James Chiengjiek (400m), Duol Charles Elijah (800m) and Joseph Ernestp (800m).

The others who competed in Rio and were honoured in the Laureus Awards are Anjelina Lohalith (1500m), Simon Lohuju (1,500), Rose Lokonyen (800), Paulo Lokoro (1,500), Simon Mauris (5,000m), Clementina Rilando (1,500m), John Taba (5,000), Rose Uwaro (200m), Chajen Yien (Javelin)  and Lydia Mamun (800m).

IOC President Thomas Bach, Tokyo 2020 President Mori Yoshirō, Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko and Olympic and Paralympic Minister Hashimoto Seiko jointly made a decision in March last year to reschedule the tournament after the coronavirus outbreak.

Initially, the tournament was to run from July 24 to August 9, 2020 but it was scheduled to run from July 23, to August 8, 2021.

‘‘These new dates give the health authorities and all involved in the organisation of the Games the maximum time to deal with the constantly changing landscape and the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,’’ IOC stated in its press release last year.