Refugee athletes compete for first time at Asian Games
ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan – Five refugee athletes have taken part in the Asian Games, the biggest sporting event in the region, with over 5,000 athletes competing from 60 countries.
Yiech Pur Biel, Gai Nyang Tap, Wiyual Puok Deng, Paulo Amotun Lokoro and Ukuk Uthoo all fled war and violence in their native South Sudan before finding refuge in Kenya, where they now live and train.
Yiech Pur Biel, a 22-year-old middle-distance runner, made his international debut at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as part of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team. He says that experience helped prepare him for the Asian Games, which kicked off on 18 September in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
Pur finished fourth in his 800 metres heat, taking him through to the semi-finals, where he came fifth. “I am happy to have had the opportunity to compete at the Asian Games,” he said. “I realize now that I have to simply train harder to achieve my goals.”
For Ukuk Uthoo, the Games were his first experience of competing internationally. The 24-year-old said he surprised himself by getting through to the finals of the 3,000 metres. He then came seventh out of 12 runners, with a time of 8.33 minutes.
“I have learnt a lot from the Asia Games,” he said afterwards. “I have been able to interact with people from different places who have a lot of experience in sport and a lot of ideas on how to make it.”
The three other refugees who took part did not make it into the final rounds of their events but still viewed participating in the Games as a major landmark in their professional running careers.
“It was a new experience running in an indoor field… but at least I am able to interact with other people that I have never seen before and see how they do it, especially runners from Qatar and South Sudan,” said Wiyual Puok Deng, who ran in the 400 metres.
Their coach and mentor is Kenyan world-record-winning runner Tegla Loroupe, who helped enter the refugees in the competition, with the support of the International Olympic Committee, the Asian Olympic Committee and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
“For these refugees, competing at the Asian Games is a rare and golden opportunity,” she said. “It’s a huge boost to their confidence and morale. Some of them have never been out of Kenya.
“This experience will help them to understand that hard work, determination, discipline and sacrifice are the key to sporting excellence. Nobody here is looking at them as refugees, but as athletes.”
Loroupe is working with more than 20 refugee athletes at a training camp on the outskirts of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, with support from UNHCR and other partners. The aim is for all of those in training to get the chance to compete nationally and internationally and, in so doing, to open up opportunities for other refugee athletes.
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