Athlete Refugee Team member Paulo Amotun Lokoro in Valencia (© Bob Ramsak)
As we approach this year’s International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on Monday (April 6), the coronavirus pandemic has created a new level of challenge for Paulo Amotun Lokoro, one of the most successful members of the Athlete Refugee Team, who is now living in harsh circumstances back in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.
Lokoro, originally a cattle farmer in southern Sudan, competed over 1500m at the Rio 2016 Olympics as part of the Refugee Olympic Team, composed of athletes who had been forced to quit their native countries because of violence and conflict.
It was a global debut made possible in part due to a collaboration between the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, which works with refugee communities in Kenya, World Athletics’ Athletics for a Better World programme, which has worked with and supported Loroupe's foundation for more than a decade, and the International Olympic Committee.
With the support of World Athletics, the Athlete Refugee Team has since fielded squads at the World Relays, the World Athletics Championships of 2017 and 2019, the World Half Marathon Championships of 2018 and the World Cross Country Championships of 2019.
Lokoro has been one of the most successful athletes to be based in Loroupe’s refugee training camp at Ngong, near Nairobi, which has recently been shut because of the pandemic. He has now returned to the Kakuma camp, presently home to a displaced population of more than 180,000.
Loroupe, a three-time world half marathon champion and former marathon world record holder, has supervised a group of 30 athletes in Ngong who formed a closely knit group.
“We live together, we train together, we eat together, go to school together, everything,” Lokoro told World Athletics in 2018 as he prepared to compete in the World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia.
In 2016 he finished 11th in his 1500m heat at the Rio Olympics, clocking 4:03.96. Since then he has worked diligently to bring his personal best down to 3:44.10 last year.
His efforts to make that fitness tell at the World Athletics Championships held in Doha last September were undermined by a hamstring injury – he failed to progress from his heat after clocking 3:48.98.
Lokoro’s hamstring has since recovered – but as he told World Athletics, a new series of hurdles now lie ahead of him.
“I have just arrived back at Kakuma,” he said. “I am staying with my family in our compound – I have two of my brothers here and a sister.
“There are several other athletes from Tegla’s camp here. There are about 15 of us. She is keeping in touch with us by phone. Things are very difficult, but we are in communication with each other.
“Now that the Olympics is postponed, she has told us, ‘We will just make a plan for light training.’
“I have just done some training this morning. I did some speedwork. There is no track here but there is open ground.
“I meet with the other athletes twice a day. The first time is always six in the morning.
“Later today I will run a 10k.”
The current pandemic is a potential threat to a gathering of people with little medical resource to support them. On a sporting level, Lokoro acknowledges that the challenge is also daunting.
“Everything is cancelled,” he said. “There is no venue where we can go. Everything has stopped for us. But we need to keep up our training, we need to keep our fitness. So that we are ready, so that we can achieve our goals when we have the chance.
“When I came from Nairobi, people were looking to me, thinking maybe I had money or food. But I had none. I was not able to bring my ration card from Nairobi, so I have no ration card here. It is blocked. So right now I have no chance to get food.
“But my family are giving me their food so I am eating OK. I am happy to be with my family. I am happy with the chances I have had with Tegla which have allowed me to do something good with my life.
“If you have support, everything is becoming easy. I am just trying to do my best and to see if I can persevere. So one day I can tell my family that hard work can bring achievements.”
Reflecting on the injury that hampered his performance in Doha, he added:
“Now I am OK. I can do speedwork again now. I have recovered. I got some good massage treatment at the camp in Nairobi and some exercises that have helped me. But we don’t have any doctor here for something like that. So I have to try to help myself.
“Everything was about preparing for the Olympics, but now they are postponed. It is good in a way because it gives more time to improve. Now I must try to prepare for next year. For me, I hope I can be in Tokyo then.”
Loroupe, a long-time Ambassador of Sport at the United Nations who established her foundation in 2003, told World Athletics:
“Because of the coronavirus we have had to close the camp. I have told all my athletes: ‘We don’t cry. We have to stay positive. We have to wait for our moment.’
“So now they just do light training, they don’t let their fitness disappear.
“We have told them not to do things like playing football in the camp in case they injure themselves.
“Of course I am worried for them all. This is a global pandemic. I hope and I pray they will be well. We need to stay positive. We need to fight. We need to support each other. And we should believe that there is God with us.”
Mike Rowbottom for World Athletics