Tegla Loroupe (© Getty Images)
Her days of record-breaking performances and big city marathon wins may now be consigned to the record books, but Tegla Loroupe still lives life in the fast lane.
Since establishing the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation almost two decades ago, the three-time world half marathon champion has dedicated her life to harnessing the power of sport to promote peace.
Much of her work centres around the plight of refugees, a labour of love borne out of her own experiences of hardship. And her success as an athlete has given her the perfect platform.
“I grew up in an area of conflict,” she explained in a recent interview. “People would always be fighting over resources: land, animals, water. When I grew up, I wanted to find a way for people to listen to me – but for that to happen you need a title. At that time, I didn’t realise that sports could help me to be the way I am. Those two sides of me came together, to help me work for peace.
“I always overcame obstacles because I stay focused on what I want and how to be better,” she said. “I have proven to myself anything is possible if I put my mind to it. This is why I started the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation.”
Her foundation, which is supported by the Athletics for a Better World social responsibility programme, organises the annual ‘Loroupe Peace Race’. The event targets mainly the youth and aims to foster friendship networks among the warring communities on the Kenyan-Ugandan border.
The focal point of the event is the warriors’ 10km road race where rivalling factions put aside their differences and unite in the spirit of sport.
High-profile dignitaries from Uganda and Kenya have also supported and attended the race since the inaugural edition in 2003. The race has provided a much-needed platform to reflect and talk about peace and development, while some guests even ran alongside each other in the dignitaries’ 2km road race in a mark of improved diplomatic relations.
And while there’s work to be done, there is still palpable evidence of a soothing of relations since the foundation set up a series of Peace Races across Kenya.
One particular group of warriors from Kainuk in South Turkana district, who took part in the Moroto Peace Race, have remained staunch advocates of peace, helping to improve community relations between the Pokot and Turkana along Turkwel, Amolem and Kasei areas.
Tegla Loroupe at the Loroupe Peace Race (© TLPF)
In 2014 Loroupe took her peace-building efforts to refugee camps in Kenya where she discovered a great interest in athletics among refugee communities.
She then petitioned the International Olympic Committee to give refugees a chance to advance in their athletics careers by taking part in the Olympics. She established an athletics training camp for refugees in Ngong, in the outskirts of Nairobi, which is run by her foundation. Her hope was to help produce Olympic talent that would unite the people of countries that are at war.
Her vision was realised in 2016 when the first Refugee Olympic Team was constituted, comprising 10 refugees from Syria, Congo, Ethiopia and South Sudan, providing a symbol of hope to the more than 65 million people globally who are currently displaced by conflict. Five of the team members came from Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp.
“My dream has been to help young people gain confidence and purpose through athletics,” said Loroupe. “I have learnt so much from my sport and I want to share this. When I was looking for financial support to start the training camps, World Athletics was generous and the Refugee Team that competed at the Rio 2016 Games owes its early steps to the funding and support from World Athletics.”
World Athletics President Sebastian Coe with Tegla Loroupe and athletes from the refugee camp in Ngong (© Getty Images)
Just seven months after the Olympic Games, Loroupe, with the help of World Athletics, formed the Athlete Refugee Team. Ever since, the Athlete Refugee Team has been invited to compete at all World Athletics Series events.
Most recently they competed at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020, where Otmane Nait-Hammou finished 67th in the field of 122, clocking 1:03:28 to beat some of the world’s finest half-marathon runners. Yonas Kinde is another top-performing refugee athlete; he set a marathon PB of 2:17:12 in 2019.
The team is now preparing for their second appearance at an Olympic Games, and once again Loroupe will be the team’s chef de mission.
“Finding peace through sport is a way to bring peace to so many refugees and disadvantaged people and when peace exists development is possible,” says Loroupe. “As part of the foundation's work, training refugee athletes for the Olympics has been a dream come true, and we know if these athletes are on the world stage we will continue to create more peace in the world.”
“In sport it’s important to give back. We need to create room for love, reconciliation and work,” she added.
“Refugees are good people and they are very resilient. They’ve been through hard lives, and they are still standing tall. I see myself as a mother for those who need a mother.”