In the lead-up to World Refugee Day on 20 June, members of the Refugee Olympic Team will be sharing their stories in a series of features as they prepare for the Games in Tokyo. The series continues with sprinter Dorian Keletela.
With the exception of the football World Cup, there’s simply no stage in sport that can rival the Olympic Games – its global reach, its captive audience, the knowledge participants have that on that platform, for those few weeks, the whole world is watching.
As such, it’s an ideal place to not only entertain, but also inspire – a medium through which to send a message. For Dorian Keletela, a 22-year-old member of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team, his performance in the men’s 100m in Tokyo will be about far more than his time or finishing position.
“The world needs inspiration, a good message,” he says. “The message I want to send is that refugee people are a strong people and they can do everything a normal person can do.”
A native of Congo, Keletela faced tragedy early in life. In his teens he lost both of his parents, who were victims of political persecution, and he moved in with his aunt, who cared for him thereafter.
“In Congo the important thing is to respect your Mum, and I respected her like a Mum,” he says.
In 2016 the two fled to Portugal where he spent more than a year in refugee centres, a difficult situation but one he had to endure to escape the risk at home.
“It was very complicated to live there,” he says of his native country. “But (leaving) was not really a choice.”
Keletela first took up athletics at the age of 15 while still living in Congo and, the following year, he ran 10.68 for 100m. After settling in Portugal and joining a local club, he lowered his best to 10.48 in 2017.
He arrived unable to speak Portuguese but these days he’s fluent and for all the difficulties he endured, he has since built a much better life, with plans to become a coach in the future.
“In Portugal I have more liberty,” he says. “This is very fundamental because people look for liberty in life. Congo doesn’t have liberty.”
In March this year, Keletela became the first member of the World Athletics Athlete Refugee Team to compete at the European Indoor Championships, powering down the track in the light blue singlet and finishing eighth in his 60m heat in 6.91.
“This experience was very good for me because it was a championship of Europe,” he says. “I was thankful to all those who helped make it happen.”
A member of Sporting Lisbon, Keletela has worn their green and white stripes with pride at many domestic events over the past couple of years. Keletela joined the Athlete Refugee Team programme in 2019 but injury sidelined him from the World Championships that year. Despite the disruption to training caused by the pandemic last year, he lowered his 100m best to 10.46 (0.7m/s) in Lisbon and clocked 10.48 in the heats of the national championships.
His 2021 season is already shaping up well, with a 10.55 100m clocking in May and a wind-aided 10.51 (+2.2m/s) in June. He typically trains six days a week for up to three or four hours a day, and last week his hard work was rewarded when he was among 29 athletes from 11 countries named on the IOC Refugee Olympic Team. They will compete across 12 sports at the Tokyo Games.
“My objective is to make a mark,” he says. “I hope to do a personal best.”
But his goal also runs deeper than that.
Keletela knows that as countries become more multi-cultural, there can often be a growing swell of anti-immigration sentiment, but he wants people to know what life is really like for refugees, how the similarities to them far outweigh the differences.
“People sometimes have the impression refugees are bad but they are normal people,” he says. “Refugees are very motivated to invest in their life, to recreate their life. They are normal people that just had to move from their country that’s in conflict to go to another.”
Over time, he has seen the positives of being a refugee.
“For me, to be a refugee is an opportunity to be here to run,” he says. “If I wasn’t a refugee, I wouldn’t be able to run at the Olympics. I can be an inspiration for other refugees and people who have a similar experience to me because life is not always easy for everyone.”
Making the Games is something Keletela “never dreamed of” before arriving in Portugal, but ever since hearing about the refugee team a vision formed: him settling into the blocks alongside the fastest men in the world on the grandest stage in sport.
“When I saw this group I said, ‘maybe one day I will be part of this’,” he says. “And now this dream is my reality.”
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics