The Athlete Refugee Team practices prior to the IAAF / BTC World Relays Bahamas 2017 in Nassau
“There are many ways to be a refugee,” says Gai Nyang, a tall, slender 25-year-old from South Sudan. “It’s not about being a victim of a war crisis. Even if you’re out of your country, it’s important that nothing stops you doing the thing you want to do.”
Nyang’s tale, just like that of his Athlete Refugee Team (ART) compatriots here at the IAAF/BTC World Relays Bahamas 2017, is living proof of that.
Earlier this week, he set off from the Tegla Loroupe Training Camp for Athlete Refugees in Ngong, outside Nairobi, alongside Wiyual Puok, Dominic Lokinyomo and Paulo Amotun, their mission to pit their talent against the world’s best in the 4x800m in Nassau.
Nyang, an 800m specialist, was in the camp last month when informed he had made the team. “I called the manager and was like: ‘where is the Bahamas?’” he recalls. “‘Is it in Africa?’”
After their arrival on Thursday, Caribbean life naturally took a little getting used to.
“The food, it’s so delicious, but we’re going to see if it will work in our body at practice,” he said, shortly before the team visited the national stadium for their first relay training. “It’s such a nice place, the Bahamas – I’d love to stay and enjoy it, but right now we are focusing on the race.”
Nyang will run the first leg for the team on Sunday night, when the quartet will line up alongside middle distance powerhouses like the US, Kenya and Poland.
“I used to watch some of these athletes on TV,” says Nyang. “But now I see them and I see they’re just people like me.”
The team’s participation was made possible due to a collaboration by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation and IAAF’s Athletics for a Better World programme. In 2014 the foundation was granted US$20,000 by the IAAF to to help make the idea of a refugee team possible, with extra funding delivered this year to enable a team to participate in Nassau.
The four athletes selected will join more than 500 competitors this weekend, though few of their rivals will have dealt with such adversity to be here.
Paulo Amotun, a 25-year-old from South Sudan, will run the second leg in Sunday’s race, and nerves are unlikely to be a factor for him given he has already participated on the grandest stage of all – the Olympic Games in Rio.
“It was an amazing experience, meeting so many international runners,” says Amotun. “To get a lot of advice, seeing the food world class runners eat and how they train – when I came back to the camp I met my colleagues and told them all the stories.”
Amotun’s parents were forced to flee Sudan while he was still a teenager, leaving him in the care of his uncle, and it was several years before he would be reunited with them in a refugee camp.
He is one of the lucky few there to have proper training shoes, which he feels is essential for athletes to continue chasing their sporting dreams. “Most of the time it was difficult to train,” he admits. “We didn’t have the right shoes and trained in the wrong ones and got injured. Now, some have them, some don’t, so I hope people can hear our stories and support the people there.”
Amotun was previously a talented footballer, and still carries the nickname Diaby – after Abou Diaby, the French player who spent many years at his favourite club, Arsenal.
Nyang, meanwhile, was encouraged to take up athletics after his talent was spotted while playing football: “I ran on the wing a lot and people would always say: ‘why are you playing football? You can be a runner.’”
‘Sport is for peace’
He spent several years in Ethiopia after fleeing South Sudan, where his father was killed in conflict. After his tribe was targeted in a series of attacks, Nyang spent three straight days hiding in the same room, then escaped to a refuge for civilian casualties.
It was just 5km away, but the journey took 18 days, such was the danger involved at every turn. He spent two years at the refugee camp in Kakuma, where he discovered his love – and indeed talent – for athletics, before relocating to the Loroupe training camp, where he's been based for most of the past two years.
“Sport is for peace,” says Nyang. “There should be no corruption, no tribalism, just peace when we compete. It was hard for us to get here but we are really thankful to the Tegla Peace Foundation and the IAAF for all their help.”
Wiyual Puok, who will run the third leg for the team, left in 2012, shortly before war broke out in South Sudan. “I left to go to [the refugee camp in] Kakuma, where no one can attack you and no one can kill you,” he says. “My mother and sister were killed in my village. It was so hard for me.”
This, incidentally, will not be his first relay, having competed in a 4x100m race at the national stadium in Nairobi last year.
“We were all from different places,” he recalls, “but we were all the same: refugees.”
Dominic Lokinyomo, the anchor athlete, left South Sudan in 2007 and has lived in Kenya for the past 10 years, where he was eventually reunited with his sister last December after several years apart.
Ahead of Sunday’s race, he admits it’s a step into the unknown.
“We hope to get a good finishing position,” he says. “I was more used to running 400m and I’m still getting used to running 800, so maybe I won’t finish strong, but we’ll see.”
Though they come from very different backgrounds, the four team members say they have developed a strong bond, united by their circumstances and their sport.
“We are friends for two years now,” says Nyang. “It’s more than a relationship; I recognise them more than my relatives. It’s special to run as part of a team because it encourages us so much more. We all feel we don’t want to let the team down.”
There is a higher purpose for them being here, too, and Nyang, the most talkative of the group, is adamant that the world hears his message.
“Whether African, refugees or whatever, we are all one,” he says. “It’s not about representing any country; this is for refugees all over the world. In sport we are all one people – athletes.”
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF