Members of the Athlete Refugee Team training on their new nearly-completed track in Ngong (© Daniel Kiptugen)
Like most athletes, members of the Athlete Refugee Team had big plans for 2020. For some, it was to earn a spot on the small squad bound for the World Indoor Championships. For others, to race at the World Half Marathon Championships. And for others still, an appearance at the Olympic Games, on the biggest stage of all.
That of course, all changed in March with the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the first half of the month, Paulo Amotun Lokoro was at his base and adopted home, the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation (TLPF) training camp in Ngong, Kenya, working towards what he hoped would be a second Olympic appearance. Lokoro was a member of the original refugee team that competed at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero in 2016 and in the three seasons since, had knocked nearly 20 seconds from his 1500m best. With another season of consistent training, that 3:44.07 personal best, he believed, was due for further revision again in 2020.
But work towards his Olympic ambitions came to a screeching halt when the camp went into lockdown in the waning days of the month, forcing him, and most of his refugee team colleagues who also trained in Ngong, back to the Kakuma Refugee Camp, a sprawling UNHCR-operated facility in northwest Kenya that is currently home to more than 180,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Challenges included access to adequate healthcare and maintaining proper levels of nutrition.
Despite a lack of facilities and the much harsher circumstances at the Kakuma camp, Lokoro and his teammates trained when they could to maintain a base level of fitness and kept in regular contact with Loroupe and their coaches, but saw their entire competitive calendar for the year wiped out.
Nait-Hammou impresses in Gdynia
Otmane Nait-Hammou, a refugee from Morocco who competed at the World Athletics Championships and World Cross Country Championships in 2019, was at his training base in Västervik, Sweden, training for the World Indoor Championships and World Half Marathon Championships, when the lockdowns hit.
“To be honest, I was depressed in the beginning," Nait-Hammou said in June. "I couldn’t do my training programme as we had planned. And I couldn’t get together with friends. So it was a hard situation.
"Honestly, I'm used to suffering,” he continued, with a smile. “For me, one year is nothing. It's just one year. It will be a good season with the World Indoor Championships next year and then the Olympics. I'm positive and I'm optimistic."
Unlike Lokoro, Nait-Hammou did have facilities at his disposal and despite lockdowns, was able to maintain a more regular training regimen and even get in some races late in the year, which resulted in a spate of personal bests. Among those, a 1:03:28 performance at the World Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia where he finished 67th in the field of 122 and beating some of the world’s finest half-marathoners in the process. He capped the year with a ninth place finish at the Cursa dels Nassos 10km in Barcelona on New Year's Eve clocking 29:10, another career best.
Progress and consistency at Tel Aviv base
Refugee team athletes based in Tel Aviv, working with the Alley Runners Club, faced similar challenges.
Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed, a refugee from South Sudan who has been living in Israel since 2010 and a member of the Alley Runners since 2014, competed sparingly but consistently, producing season's best of 3:53.02 for 1500m, 8:04.09 for 3000m and 13:55.74 for 5000m. His 3000m time was a lifetime best and he was within a second of his best over the other two distances.
Mohammed was training for a spot on the squad bound for Gdynia for the World Half Marathon Championships - he was 85th at the World Cross Country Championships in 2019 on his Athlete Refugee Team debut - but visa issues ultimately kept him from the start line in Poland. Mohammed also completed his studies in sport massage, and now works as a massage therapist at the club.
Tachlowini Gabriyesos, a native of Eritrea who competed in the 5000m alongside Mohammed at the 2019 World Championships, produced several lifetime bests, including over 5000m (14:00.53), 10,000m (28:47.67), 10km (28:32), half marathon (1:02:21) and the marathon (2:14:57). Like Mohammed, visa issues prevented him from competing in Gdynia.
There were some high points from the club’s younger athletes as well. A squad of six girls aged 15-18, all refugees from Eritrea, qualified for the ISF School World Cross Country Championships which were to be held in Slovakia, but cancelled due to the pandemic. They are now setting their sites on the World Athletics U20 Championships in Nairobi later this year.
Track construction in Ngong
Back in Ngong, camp staff made very good use of their down time during the lockdown period. Staff and volunteers carried out maintenance projects on the buildings and grounds, planted and expanded gardens, and cleared a large area where a standard 400-metre track is now being constructed.
“The athletes used to walk four kilometres to be able to access a training track that we had to pay for monthly,” Daniel Kiptugen, the programming manager and TLPF Refugee Athlete Training Centre Camp coordinator, explained. “This had been a great challenge over time for the team and hence we thought of preparing the field to ease this and be able to help them train better.”
The top layer of murram soil has been laid and compressed and construction on locker rooms is currently underway, Kiptugen said, and hopes the project will be completed in the next month or two.
Most of the team has returned from Kakuma and is now back in Ngong where they’ve resumed their training and studies. While plans for most of 2021 are still very much up in the air, team members are hoping to compete at many of the year’s key competitions including the World Athletics Relays in May, the African Championships in June, the Olympic Games in July and World U20 Championships in August.
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics