The Olympic Team With No Flag
The first Refugee Olympic Team will arrive in Rio dreaming of gold — and the countries they were forced to leave behind.
Photography by Will Swanson
For his part, Biel is most interested in calling attention to the experiences that he and his new teammates share in common — both what they have had to sacrifice and what they still hope to achieve. “We shall meet as refugees, the 10 of us,” he said, ahead of the games. “We become one team. We are the eyes of the refugees.”
Their participation is a statement, but the Olympics is still a competition — and Rose Nathike Lokonyen, one of Biel’s teammates who is also training in Ngong, is determined to win.
During the team’s ceremonial introduction on June 3, Bach told Lokonyen’s story in detail. She became a refugee in 2002, arriving in Kakuma with her family at the age of 7. Her parents then returned to southern Sudan and left her to look after her four younger siblings. She eventually managed to complete her secondary-school education, but said life in Kakuma has been hard — hot, dusty, and with few opportunities for work.
When the trials were announced to earn a spot in the training camp, she was so eager to get out of Kakuma that she entered the 10-kilometer race even though she didn’t own a pair of running shoes. Barefoot, she finished second.
Now with proper equipment and 10 months of training under her belt, she plans to improve on that position in Rio de Janeiro.
“I expect to win,” she said. “But it depends on if I’m hardworking and how people compete.”
Determination aside, the South Sudanese runners will enter as significant long shots, competing against world-class athletes, many of whom have been training their entire lives. Still, Lokonyen is determined to prove she belongs.
“Being a refugee doesn’t mean you can’t do anything,” she said. “Most of the refugees have talent. They just don’t have the chance to express that talent.”