Fri, Apr 01, 2016 - Page 18 News List

Refugees to represent Olympic dream team

AFP, NGONG, Kenya

High up in Kenya’s rugged Ngong Hills, refugees sprint around an athletics track in intensive training they hope is to see them selected for a unique team for the Rio Olympics.

Hand-picked from Kenya’s vast refugee camps — including Dadaab, the biggest in the world — to join the training camp just outside the capital, Nairobi, the athletes here have their eyes set on racing in Rio de Janeiro in August.

“It will be a very great moment for me and the rest of the refugees, who will be so proud for having produced one of their own who has gone to the Olympics,” said 22-year-old Nzanzumu Gaston Kiza, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) after his relatives were massacred in ethnic clashes.

At Ngong, a high-altitude running track about 2,400m above sea level and 40km southwest of Nairobi, athletes from across eastern Africa are chasing the dream of the Olympics.

Amid a world record number of people forced from their homes and their countries, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) this month announced the creation and funding of Team Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA) to compete in Rio under its flag.

The team, expected to include between five and 10 athletes from across the world, is part of the IOC’s “pledge to aid potential elite athletes affected by the worldwide refugee crisis.”

Team ROA is to march just before the hosts Brazil enter the Olympic Stadium at the opening ceremony — carrying the Olympic flag and anthem — a position likely to be given enormous cries of support.

While countries might field their own teams, the refugees are unable to return home safely to take part — and instead are to run under the Olympic flag.

“We want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world,” IOC president Thomas Bach said when plans for the team were announced.

At the camp in Kenya — training in fierce equatorial sunshine at high altitudes that would leave many breathless — athletes include runners from DR Congo as well as war-torn South Sudan and Somalia.

Former Kenyan Olympic team coach John Anzrah is in charge of molding the refugees into quality Olympic material capable of challenging elite athletes in Rio.

“When the athletes came here, they not in shape, they were a zero,” Anzrah said. “We should remember that these were people living in camps and we had to start them from somewhere.”

However, he said he is hopeful of their potential, and singled out runner Mohammed Daud Abubakar from war-torn Somalia as his best bet to succeed in Rio.

Teammates say Abubakar bears a resemblance to Britain’s Somalia-born two-time world and Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion, Mo Farah, and is so desperate to compete against his namesake, they have given him the same nickname.

“I want to be one of the great runners in the world, so Rio is the big one,” Abubakar said.

However, training to win a place is tough. Olympic Committee of Kenya chairman and IOC board member Kipchoge Keino said the runners must have good qualifying times to be considered for the team.

The refugee runners are already competing alongside Kenyan national weekend track and field meetings organized by Athletics Kenya, with a final decision to be made in June on who is to go to Rio.

Keino hopes as many as six athletes, three men and three women, could be chosen.

“We might be seeing one of those kids coming up with a gold,” he said.

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