The displaced people hoping to have their shot at Olympic gold range from a teenage swimmer from Syria to martial artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The largest concentration of potential refugee competitors come from a training camp in Kenya’s Ngong hills where runners, who have fled conflicts in nations all over central and west Africa, race together every day, the AFP reports.
There, former coach of Kenya’s Olympic team John Anzrah is leading the effort to shape the athletes from Kenya’s vast refugee camps into Olympic competitors. The athletes he is working with were handpicked from Kenya’s refugee camps for their abilities but still, the transition from life in the camps to rigorous training has been difficult.
“When the athletes came here, they were not in shape, they were a zero,” Anzrah told AFP. “We should remember that these were people living in camps and we had to start them from somewhere.”
Many runners sustained injuries early on in training and were forced to return to the refugee camps, while others chose to run through the pain.
“We have been training hard, even though our bodies have been responding negatively, because we got lots of injuries,” 22-year-old Angelina Ndai, a runner from South Sudan, told the AFP.
Despite the challenges, this opportunity means everything to the runners who have lost so much already.
“It is a very good opportunity for us,” Ndai said. “I will feel so proud to be there and to be recognized as a South Sudanese.”
In January, the International Olympic Committee announced that a team of refugee athletes would be invited to compete under the Olympic flag for the first time. The decision came as more people than ever before have been forced out of their homes and native countries by war.
“We want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world,” IOC president Thomas Bach said at the time of the announcement.
Pere Miro, the IOC’s deputy director general for relations with the Olympic movement is spearheading the initiative, according to the Associated Press. More than half of the 43 athletes selected as contenders for the team are runners from central and western Africa, he said.
“I was touched by the personal story of each one,” he told the AP. “But I also was really touched by how much sport means in their lives.”
In January, Miro visited Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp that serves as a home to more than 180,000 refugees, many of whom fled from South Sudan’s civil war.
“I was touched in seeing how the people live in this camp,” Miro said. “It’s in the middle of nowhere. They have nothing to do. The main activity that keeps them motivated and alive is sport.”
This love of the sport, combined with the training they’re receiving, could give some of these athletes have a real shot – and not just at qualifying for the Olympics. Kenya’s Olympic chief and IOC board member, Kipchoge Keino told the AFP that he has high hopes for the runners.
“We might be seeing one of those kids coming up with a gold,” he said. “The talent is there and everything is mentally and physically how you approach it.”