Rose Nathike, a South Sudanese refugee living in Kenya, says sport has changed her life.
The UN Refugee Agency estimates that at the start of 2021 there were more than 82 million displaced people in the world. Twenty-nine of them have been selected for this year’s IOC Refugee Team competing at the Tokyo Olympics.
At the Rio 2016 Olympics Nathike had the honour of being flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.
After fleeing her homeland with her parents when she was eight, her home had been the Kakuma refugee camp, along with 200,000 other displaced people.
Nathike is now 27. She says as a kid growing up in the camp she did what all kids did – played soccer.
“I remember my dad didn’t want me to get into sport … he was saying, ‘Only boys can go and play but not girls, you’ve got to be home.’
“I also played in the school competition when I was in high school… that is when I got the chance to be an athlete.”
In 2014 Nathike got her first taste of athletics when the camp put on a race for all nationalities.
A year later, the UNHCR teamed up with Tegla Loroupe, Kenya’s former marathon world record holder, to offer scholarships for athletes with potential to live and train at the Tegla Loroupe International Olympic Refugee Training Camp in Ngong, just outside the Kenyan capital Nairobi.
Nathike was one of the talented athletes selected.
A year later five of them were marching into the Olympic Games under the IOC flag with Loroupe the team’s chef de mission.
“We didn’t know this would create a big chance for all the refugees,” Nathike said.
World championships in London 2017 and Doha 2019 followed, and now a second Olympics.
Loroupe is the team’s chef de mission again, but she tested positive to COVID-19 before leaving Kenya so her arrival has been delayed.
Also absent from the team are six runners who deserted the training facility over the last few years, as reported recently by Time Magazine.
The runners felt they were being used and were increasingly frustrated that despite their success their situation was not improving — they felt they could not question the system because “we are just a refugee”.
When those allegations were put to the IOC in Tokyo this week the IOC’s director of team relations, James Macleod, said the IOC understood that once an athlete competed at an Olympic Games “their expectations are obviously heightened”.
“Life has evolved, the athletes have evolved, and their needs have evolved.
“The other thing that we’re trying to do is increase opportunities for them to be able to access sport.”
Nathike says she appreciates the opportunities she’s been given.
“I think now we’ve got the chance of going through further studies through a host program in Canada, I think from there life is going to be much better compared to the life that we had in Kakuma because we are able to train and also go to school.
“As well, being able to go for a job and being able to support our family… we will be able to continue with our life and one day, when I have a family also, life will be different.”
Nathike’s aim is to graduate with a degree in sport management or international relations.
And what does her father think about sport now?
“Now he just says, ‘Oh, maybe I was killing your talents because I didn’t know what it would be like you being a lady and also wanting to play football and running.’
“Because, you know, in African culture they say women are not supposed to do what men are doing.
“But I keep pushing and overcome all the challenges.
Nathike has been drawn in heat three of the 800 metres to be run at the National Olympic Stadium on Friday.
“My expectation is to do my best, especially to improve upon my time, and also, to wish all the people good luck in the Games.
“It wasn’t that easy during the pandemic in 2020 but at least, finally, now we are here, and we are so happy.
“Thank you to the people of Japan for welcoming us.”
The 29 members of the IOC refugee team are from 11 countries, living in 13 host nations and will contest 12 sports including athletics, cycling and wrestling.