Ashgabat 2017: Africa’s refugee athletes eyeing medals at Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

BY: Alieu Ceesay in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

The Refugee Team that were invited to participate in the Ashgabat 2017 5th Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games have expressed hope that more global competitions will open their doors for them in the future.

Athletes Paulo Amotun Lokoro, Wiyual Puok Deng, Gai Nyang Tap, Ukuk Uthoo Bul and Yiech Pur Biel were selected for Ashgabat 2017 following trials organized by the former Kenyan athlete Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya.

The athletes are Sudanese refugees camped in Kenya and determined to use sport to better their lives. However, they are not considering returning to Sudan anytime soon.

Yiech Pur Biel, who reached the semi-finals of the men’s 800m, said the experience meant a lot to him and thanked the 5th AIMAG Executive Committee.

“This was my second major event after the 2016 Rio Olympics. Being at Rio and Ashgabat proved that we, as refugees, could do something in this world,” he said during a media conference on Thursday.

To him, sport opened many doors for them by giving them a new hope where there was none. “We did not know much about Turkmenistan, but now identify them as very kind hosts. We would like to return here for more events in the future,” said Biel.

The team’s Chef de Mission Tegla Loroupe, a three-time half-marathon world champion and triple Olympian from Kenya, urged that more big sporting events welcome refugee athletes with open arms.

“While athletes from Africa and other continents can fly to any part of the world to compete, refugees cannot do so. But it is amazing how sport has helped them,” said Loroupe. “I hope other organizers of major events will open their doors to refugee athletes so that they can compete at the highest levels.”

Ukuk Uthoo Bul, who reached the men’s 3000m final and finished seventh, said they needed continued support from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 

“The IOC has been helping us a lot in the past; they gave us the opportunity to compete in Rio. We now need them more than ever and I hope their help will continue.”