Athlete Refugee Team members Ukuk Utho'o Bul and Paulo Amotun Lokoro in Valencia (© Bob Ramsak)
For members of the Athlete Refugee Team, each step they make, whether physical or symbolic, is a big one. The one that Paulo Amotun Lokoro and Ukuk Utho'o Bul are about to take this weekend is so big it leaves them both nearly doubling over in laughter.
“Yes, it’s a big difference,” Amotun said, still smiling ear-to-ear after being reminded of just how far he’ll be racing when the gun sounds the start of IAAF/Trinidad Alfonso World Half Marathon Championships Valencia 2018. “But it is good. For me, I feel okay. I feel happy. Slowly I’m training for longer events. I like it.”
With appearances at the Olympic Games in 2016 and the IAAF World Relays and Asian Indoors Games under his belt, Amotun is the better tested of the pair. Bul, at 25 one year his junior, is making his second ART appearance after a notable debut at the Asian Indoor Games last September where he qualified for the 3000m final and ultimately finished seventh. That pair of 3000m contest, combined with Amotun’s two 1500m races and a leg in the 4x800m relay, total less than half of the distance they’ll each be expected to cover on Saturday.
Not surprisingly, Bul shared the laugh, but also the enthusiasm.
“It’s also my first time to participate in a half marathon,” he said. “This time I’m glad to try something different, something farther, to see how it feels. I’ll try my best, but I can’t promise how fast I will run.”
Late hour call-up
Their light-hearted response doesn’t mean they’re not taking their appearance or team selection lightly. Amotun and Bul had initially been selected for the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham but couldn’t travel there. So they were called up for Valencia, together with the camp’s marathon/half marathon specialist, who ultimately couldn’t travel to Spain.
“To be able to participate here, we are so happy,” Bul said. “We have been preparing, so at least we can try.”
Amotun has run some local road races in Kenya, 10-k and longer he said, but nothing approaching this level. "In Kenya we have local races, the same as this one, but local. But this one is big, international. They are all world class runners that are here. It is a big, big challenge for us."
Bul said they have put in some recent longer training runs, one as long as 18 kilometres, so he has some idea of what he’s up against. “So I will try. I want to finish the game.”
That’s how Bul describes any athletic endeavor, whether he’s talking about football, taekwondo, or running. He refers to them all as games, perhaps since he’s spent so much of his life running, if not racing.
Bul's opportunity, after 12 years at the Kakuma refugee camp
Like Amotun, whose story has become a familiar one since his appearance on the global stage in the lead-in the Rio Games, Bul was 12 when he fled the conflict in South Sudan. But unlike his teammate, he hasn’t seen his immediate family since. That was in 2005.
“Even now I don’t where they are,” he said. “I only know that they are in South Sudan, but I don’t know the place.”
Unaccompanied, he made his way to a UN-run refugee camp in the northwestern Kenyan town of Kakuma where he hoped to find a cousin. Many who wind up in the Kakuma camp, presently home to a displaced population of more than 180,000, become long-term refugees, Bul, and the cousin with whom he was reunited, among them. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, months into years. Then came his break, in the unanticipated but simple form of a footrace.
“I was in school in Kakuma and played sports, football mostly, just to pass the time,” he recounted, admitting to no perceived talent, imagined or real, for running. “Then some races took place and I participated there. They said that the best people will be taken somewhere to train and to represent the refugee team. And I was among them.”
That was in 2015, nearly 12 years after he arrived at the camp. He’s been based at the Tegla Loroupe Training Camp for Athlete Refugees in Ngong, about 30 kilometres west of Nairobi, since.
At Loroupe’s camp, balancing athletics amibitions with educational aspirations
That’s where the work began. Bul also admits that he and his colleagues knew nothing about running but found the inspiration to learn and train simply because they were selected.
“We wanted to show that refugees had the talent like other people had.” Kindness helped too.
“Madame Tegla,” Bul said of Loroupe, the marathon legend, “she is so lovely to us, she is so encouraging, teaching us that we can all be somebody.”
“Some of us went on to compete: In the Olympics, in the Bahamas, in London, in Ashgabat. This is the thing now that gives us hope. So from nowhere we are here now.”
Loroupe, a three-time world champion in the half marathon, is accompanying the pair as the Athlete Refugee Team’s team leader.
In 2014 the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation was given a US$20,000 grant through the IAAF Athletics for a Better World programme to help make the idea of a refugee team possible.
Then from 2017, athletes from the Athlete Refugee Team have been invited to all IAAF events, with the travel and accommodation for the athletes and officials covered by the IAAF.
At the Loroupe camp, the two are part of a group of 30 whose lives now rarely travel along divergent paths.
“We live together, we train together, we eat together, go to school together, everything,” Amotun said. They’re roommates too, in a room of four.
They train twice a day five or six days a week, breaking up their workout sessions with sessions hitting the books.
“We wake up early in the morning to go to training so that after training we come back and prepare for school. All of us, we are in high school. So we go back home, get dressed, take tea and go to school.”
The most difficult part of their lives, Amotun said, isn’t the physical demands of their training but rather managing the balance between their athletic and educational aspirations. “That is harder than the training, trying to find balance between running and school.”
Their Valencia strategy
Their strategy for Saturday is twofold: to run together and finish.
"We are just going to try our best. If they run faster than us, we'll follow them. We hope only to finish,” Amotun said. Then Bul chimed in.
“To finish, to get a feeling for the distance. So then next time, once we have that feeling, we'll be able to say, 'we will do this, this, this and this.' This time, we just plan to finish the game."
While they’re not at the same level as the runners who’ll be fighting for podium spots, their recent competitive experiences have boosted their confidence. They’re neither star-struck nor intimidated by the athletes who they’ll be facing this weekend.
"We're not afraid of them,” Bul said. “They are athletes and we are athletes. We know what an athlete is. If one is faster than me this time, it's no problem. He is still an athlete just like me. It is his time today. But maybe next time it will be my time.”
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF