For refugee athletes, Rio Olympics offer a bigger hope than victory, money and glory

Saturday August 13 2016

This weekend marks the end of the first week of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. The Olympics are the world’s foremost international sporting event with representatives from over 200 countries competing in 42 sports — from shooting and fencing to cycling and sailing, and gymnastics and athletics.

Success is a mark of individual achievement. It is also a source of great national pride, as citizens unite in their support and praise of their country’s sporting heroes and heroines.

East Africa is well represented. Once again, however, Kenya dominates the show with 89 competitors in seven sports — from archery and boxing to swimming, rugby and athletics. But while the Kenyan team ranked 13th in the world in the 2008 Games with 14 medals including six gold, they sank to 28th place in 2012 with 11 medals and only two gold.

They also moved from the first-ranked team from the African continent in 2008 to third place in 2012 — behind South Africa and Ethiopia. Kenyans will, therefore, be following the games particularly closely in the hope that the likes of David Rudisha, Alfred Kipketer and Viola Cheptoo Lagat can help Team Kenya regain its former glory.

Earlier in the year, Team Kenya had also been in the spotlight for less positive reasons, after the country’s anti-doping organisation was declared non-compliant by the World Anti-Doping Code, putting at risk, the team’s participation in the games. This came about following allegations of widespread doping in Kenyan athletics.

However, in a lucky turn of events for the athletes, the International Olympic Committee decided not to ban the team as a whole. Instead, the IOC left it up to the international federations governing each sport to decide whether the Kenyans were eligible to compete. Perhaps unsurprisingly in the absence of a clear steer from the IOC, the individual federations decided to allow athletes from Kenya — as well as from Russia where similar allegations were made — to participate.


Also fortunately, the World Anti-Doping Agency removed Kenya from the list of non-compliant countries early August. This came about after Parliament revised the anti-doping legislation that was signed into law by President Uhuru Kenyatta in June.


In contrast to the 89-strong Team Kenya, Ethiopia has 38 competitors in the Games, while Uganda has only 21, Burundi 9, Rwanda 8 and Tanzania 7.

This disparity raises an obvious question: Are Kenyans better at Olympic sports than their neighbours, or does the difference lie in economic and political factors that have encouraged Olympians in Kenya and discouraged them elsewhere? In particular, why does Tanzania, which boasts a slightly larger population than Kenya, have such a relatively small number of participants?

Given ethnic similarities between people across the Kenya/Tanzania border, it seems clear that the explanation cannot lie in inherent physiological abilities. But there are a number of other possible reasons, such as the level of investment in sport, the quality of training and support, and the necessary motivation to dedicate one’s life to becoming one of the world’s best.

In thinking about this question it is worth looking at Kenya’s history of excellence in long-distance running and steeplechase. Thus, of the 89 Kenyans at the Games, 48 are runners. Moreover, given that the majority of successful Kenyan, as well as Ethiopian, runners have hailed from the highlands of the Great Rift Valley, it is perhaps unsurprising that many have seen the answer in a combination of physical aptitude, favourable geographic and climatic conditions and culture.

However, while these all likely play a small part, the success of Kenya’s runners is also due — as Grant Jarvie and Michelle Sikes have shown in their work on female runners — to the availability of running schools and coaching, and to the motivation that people have to excel.

Regarding the latter, Jarvie and Sikes reveal how running has become both a sport and a business for Kenyan women. As increasingly lavish prize money ensures that runners can transform their family’s standard of living, and also contribute to their larger communities, by winning races.

This then becomes self-reinforcing, as a “small subset of elite athletes” who invest their prize money, build successful businesses and become local leaders, provide “a powerful source of inspiration and hope for many” as a potential route from poverty to status.

Problem with wealth

However, Jarvie and Sikes also show how the wealth that one can accrue has not only become a central motivation, but a problem, as many “worry about the dangers posed by the scale and the suddenness, of the wealth that athletes can now earn by racing well.”

Nevertheless, the idea that the success of a few people from a community can spur on and motivate others is an exciting thought, especially when it comes to a new Olympic team: The Olympic refugee team. Thus, for the first time, refugees are competing at the Olympic Games.

The IOC president Thomas Bach allowed the Olympic anthem to be played in their honour, while the Olympic flag led them into the Olympic Stadium.

This is a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and makes the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. These refugee athletes are showing the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”

This innovation is particularly relevant to East Africa given that, of the 10 refugees competing, five are South Sudanese nationals from Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. Both the athletes and those back in Kakuma camp are excited about their involvement. The other five are from the Democratic Republic of Congo (2), Syria (2) and Ethiopia (1), while Olympian and former marathon world record-holder Tegla Loroupe (Kenya) is the team’s Chef de Mission.

But more importantly, and as highlighted by a recent NBC video, the hope of these athletes goes beyond the possibility of winning and the money and glory that goes with it. Instead, it is about showing the world that they “are human beings like other people.”

Refugee numbers

Clearly, it is a critical time to remind the world of the people that lie behind the nameless statistics of refugee numbers. Numbers that have fuelled talk of a “crisis” and the rise of the political far-right and xenophobic feelings in many countries in Europe, but which — in the context of terrorist attacks by Al Shabaab — have also led the Government of Kenya to threaten to close the refugee camps within its borders.

At the moment, the government’s focus is on Dadaab, which is home to over 300,000 mainly Somali refugees, rather than the slightly smaller Kakuma camp, which is home to almost 200,000 mainly South Sudanese.

However, while the Kenyan government has argued that the camp needs to be closed to improve security and fight terrorism, many analysts have warned that the camp’s closure will simply lead to further suffering and insecurity. The argument is that the forced removal of Somali refugees would increase a sense of frustration and disillusionment, and also lead many to heap further blame on Kenya for its woes.

In turn, these individuals might provide ready recruits for Al Shabaab, and may well be able to return to Kenya through the porous border without being registered or supported like they are in the camps.

In such a regional and global context, it would be a fantastic thing if the involvement of Team Refugee could remind governments and citizens alike that refugees are also individual people with names, ambitions, dreams and lives.

However, I cannot help but feel that it is a sorry indictment of the world in which we live that such evidence of these people’s humanity is required. While, as with local development, sports will only ever be able to make a small contribution. The real problems require much deeper solutions, which sport can only ever hope to draw public attention to.

Gabrielle Lynch is an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick, UK ([email protected]; @GabrielleLynch6)