The refugee team of five athletes taking part in Ashgabat 2017 has been named and will compete in the Indoor Athletics track events. The delegation’s Chef de Mission is Kenya’s legendary marathon runner Tegla Loroupe, who will be joined by two more officials and a coach.

The five athletes – Paulo Amotun Lokoro (entered in 1500m), Wiyual Puok Deng (400m), Gai Yang Tap (800m), Ukuk Uthoo Bul (3000m), and Yiech Pur Biel (800m) – were selected for Ashgabat 2017 after trials organized by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in Nairobi.

All are refugees from South Sudan, and with their four accompanying officials, will be thrilled to form one of the 65 delegations participating in the biggest ever multi-sport event to be staged in Central Asia.  Of the five, Lokoro and Biel competed at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, while the other three will be competing at their first international event.

As a United Nations Ambassador for Sport and Peace, Loroupe is leading the way in finding opportunities for refugees to participate in international sporting events. A first ever refugee team participated at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and since then Kenyan refugee athletes have competed in Cyprus, the Bahamas, Uganda and Rwanda. Last month, a team joined the World Athletics Championships in London.

Speaking from Kenya this week, Loroupe said how proud she is to lead the five at Ashgabat 2017. “They are thrilled to get a chance to compete on an international stage,” said Loroupe, who held the marathon world record between 1998 and 2001. “There are few opportunities to compete, especially for refugees, so this is an exciting moment for them. “We will bring some new athletes who did not compete before, so now they have the chance they have dreamed of. It’s special for them, to be able to show their talent and physical abilities on a bigger stage. It means a lot. The refugee team is a team for humanity, and is one all nations can cheer for.”

The five athletes live and train alongside other trainee refugee athletes in Kenya, in facilities and residence funded by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation and supported by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. After months of training near the Kenyan capital, the five are in peak condition and ready for the competition. 

 “As we speak, I’m at the track with them here in Ngong, where they have been training with us at the foundation – we are doing some speed work, so they are well prepared,” said Loroupe. 

A legend in her country, Loroupe is famous among Athletics communities worldwide for her incredible achievements in long distance running. She was a three-time half-marathon world champion and competed for Kenya at three Olympic Games. Loroupe still holds the world records for 20, 25, and 30 kilometres, and was the first woman from Africa to win the New York City marathon, which she won twice. She is now a global spokeswoman for peace, women’s rights, and education.  Part of her foundation’s mission is to promote the socio-economic development of poor and marginalized individuals and communities in northern Kenya and the Horn of Africa. It has organized thousands of participants from tribes across the East Africa region to participate in meetings, peace dialogues and athletic competitions.

As a delegate for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, Loroupe will travel to Ashgabat via the 130th International Olympic Committee (IOC) Congress, in Lima, Peru, which is from September 13. She will re-connect with her refugee team in Ashgabat on September 16, and is looking forward to meeting the wider sports community in Ashgabat.    “I’m especially looking forward to engaging with young athletes in Ashgabat, and to talk with women there about what sports can do for women. It is very important to me. The refugee team delegation wants to thank the Government of Turkmenistan for this special invitation.”  

The delegation is sure to receive a big welcome when it enters the Ashgabat Olympic Stadium at the Opening Ceremony on September 17. The Olympic Council of Asia hymn will be adopted as the refugee team’s anthem, and it will compete under the OCA flag.

The Chairman of the 5th AIMAG Executive Committee, Dayanch Gulgeldiyev, said the refugee team will add a special element to Ashgabat 2017. “This team brings the spirit of Olympic solidarity. We are delighted that a delegation of refugee athletes will take part at Ashgabat 2017, and we expect them to receive a big reception at the Opening Ceremony and throughout the competition,” he said. “Last month, we saw once again the unifying power of a refugee team, at the World Athletics Championships in London.”

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the UNHCR have been working together for 22 years to bring the sport to refugee camps around the world. The IOC provides the funds to make that happen.