Rio 2016 Olympic Refugee flagbearer Rose Nathike: “Now is the time to keep dreams and hope alive”

The 800m runner is back at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, but remains focused on her training for Tokyo 2020.
By Evelyn Watta

As Kenya heeded the call to stay indoors during the coronavirus lockdown, Refugee Olympic Athlete Rose Nathike was among the dozens of displaced people that had to pack their bags and go back to Kakuma refugee camp.

The 26-year-old South Sudanese was at the peak of her high-altitude training camp in Iten, the area famed for producing some of Kenya’s top middle- and long-distance runners.

She would have been training at her normal surroundings at the Tegla Loroupe Refugee Training Centre in Ngong, just outside Kenya’s capital Nairobi. before it was ordered shut.

Athletics Kenya decided to close all training camps and running clubs countrywide due to the coronavirus outbreak.

With nowhere else to go, Nathike went back to the remote refugee camp in far-away northern Kenya she has called 'home' since fleeing Sudan with her family as a 10-year-old.

“We went back to Ngong hopeful that the pandemic won’t be so bad, and we may still travel to Doha,” she told the Olympic Channel from the sprawling shanty town that houses nearly 200,000 refugees.

Training at a refugee camp

She was among 49 Refugee Athlete Scholarship holders drawn from all over the world across 11 sport disciplines who had been earmarked to take part in the IOC Refugee Olympic training camp in Doha in March, ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“As a matter of fact, we would have been travelling back from Doha today [1 April]. With no travel and Athletics Kenya ordering all training camps closed, there was no way out.

"UNHCR sent us a car that brought us back to the Kakuma camp where most of our families are," explained the eldest of 10 siblings, who are all based at the refugee camp alongside their parents.

“This [Kakuma] is home for me, this is where my family is, so there is nowhere else to go. I begin my days by doing some house chores as I have to go for training by 6AM before the sun gets too hot, for some runs or speed work depending on my programme."

Temperatures in Kakuma at this time of the year can go up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit).

This leaves her with a very short window for training outdoors and limited training space at home.

“When I get back from training, I go and fetch water to use in the home and do other housework," she said.

"The hardest part is now just idling at home until the next day because of the heat in the day and the government-ordered curfew starts here at 6PM.”

Kenyan authorities have enforced a dusk to dawn nationwide curfew to curb the spread of the virus.

Rose Nathike training at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya.

Never lose hope

The flag bearer of the first IOC Refugee Olympic Team Rio 2016 at the Opening Ceremony believes that now is the time to run with faith in her heart and dreams in her head.

“I can’t say why is this happening or I could have been here or there, and not here in Kakuma. Health and life are more important than any other cancelled sporting events.”

“As refugees, as athletes, we have to be strong and never lose hope. Because even in normal life you will face some hardships. Some difficult situations in your life can last for years. So, if you have a goal you always must remain focus on it despite the current situation. Keep your dreams and hope alive. Never lose hope, keep on training. This pandemic has hit us hard, but it will end.”

Refugee Athlete Scholarship extended

She is also encouraged by the announcement on Wednesday [1 April] by the IOC that her training grant and those of 48 Refugee Athlete Scholarship-Holders have been extended into 2021.

The grant through the Olympic Solidarity has helped her and other Refugee Athletes train with the aim of qualifying for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, but also to continue their sporting careers and build towards their future.

Since her international debut at Rio 2016, Nathike has competed at the last two World Championships in London and Doha.

Rose Nathike at the 2017 World Championships in London.

She is hopeful of making the IOC Refugee Olympic Team for Tokyo 2020.

In Tokyo, the IOC Refugee Olympic Team will compete under the code EOR, which stands for Équipe Olympique des Réfugiés.

“My times have improved from my last race in Doha. I dropped from 2 minutes,16 seconds [in Rio] to 2:13. My aim was to run under 2:10 before Tokyo. So now I have more time to work on running even faster before the Olympics,” she added confidently.

“Time goes by so fast. Within no time the Olympics will be here with us. We are already in April and soon the year will be over. My Olympic dreams stays. I am still training and keeping on. An athlete must always be prepared, be ready.”

Refugee Olympic Athlete Rose Nathike.

Nathike, who started training as an athlete in 2015, says running has been her main source of hope and a welcome distraction from the conflict she escaped.

“Sports is my passion I have to keep on doing it. It gives me hope even at this difficult time. If I lose hope, the harder things will get. I always keep the faith.”