Olympic Champion Campriani coaches refugees in Tokyo 2020 qualifying challenge

The project is being documented by the Olympic Channel original series 'Taking Refuge', which will air in 2020.

Picture by Getty Images

Coach a group of refugee athletes who just started a new sport, and help them qualify for Tokyo 2020. In just one year. This is the ambitious project taken up by the three-time sport shooting Olympic champion Niccolo Campriani.

The journey of the three selected refugees is being documented by the Olympic Channel original series 'Taking Refuge: Target Tokyo 2020', which will air in early 2020. Their aim is to reach the minimum qualifying score (MQS) so they can be selected by the Refugee Olympic Team or by a National Olympic Committee.

This weekend they will take part in their first test at the Italian shooting championships in Bologna.

Inspired by a trip to Zambia

Campriani ended his career as an athlete at Rio 2016, where he clinched Olympic gold in the 50m rifle three position event final. But the Italian wasn't truly happy that day. He felt mentally exhausted and had never used a rifle since. Three years later, he decided that it was time to reconcile with his sport and himself. The 31-year-old realised he wanted to use his status as an Olympic champion to inspire other athletes, help people and "make the world a better place through sport". Olympic Channel spoke exclusively with Campriani to understand how his new journey began.

Everything started after my last shot in Rio Niccolo Campriani - Niccolo Campriani

"That gold medal should have been silver: I won due to a mistake made by the other finalist (the Russian Sergey Kamenskiy). At the time I struggled to come to terms with that gold and I donated the difference in prize money to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)," Campriani recalls. "Later I was invited to Zambia to visit the Meheba Refugee Camp, one of the biggest refugee camps in Africa. That experience had a huge impact on me and made me think about how I could use my status as an Olympian, and the network I had grown, for a cause that I feel close to my heart."


A win-win situation

The Florence-born three-time Olympian is now based in Lausanne, Switzerland, after joining the International Olympic Committee as Sports Intelligence manager in 2017. "The idea was to help a couple of refugees from my local area, the Canton of Vaud, to reach the minimum qualifying score for Tokyo in one of the events I competed in, the 10m air rifle. I wanted to show that an Olympic champion has access to an unique network and can quickly raise funds," he explained. "My aim is to inspire Olympians, perhaps from another country or another sport, to do the same. It's a win-win situation. You help this people and at the same time you do something good for yourself. When an athlete retires, one of his biggest challenges is to find new goals and, most of all, a new purpose." 

IOC - The Rio 2016 double Olympic champion pictured here during the selection process

Campriani presented his project to the local immigration office in Lausanne at the end of 2018. Then he started to interview the first candidates and, out of a restricted group of local refugees, he selected three people. A man, Mahdi, and two women, Khaoula and Luna. "They are identified only with the first name and we only revealed Mahdi's country, which is Afghanistan," the four-time Olympic medallist said. "Each of them has his own incredible story and personal motivation to undertake this journey."

'Don't feel sorry for them, believe in them'

Niccolo has his motivations too and they are not superficial. "I strongly believe in the power of sport as an integration tool, as an opportunity to learn from each other and become stronger together." he said. "My career is the proof of that. I was successful because I was always open to other cultures and training methods. Sharing my knowledge with other athletes made me stronger. I would have remained behind, if I had decided to isolate myself, trying only to solve problems by myself. I am convinced of it. "I experienced some intense moments when I visited the refugee camp in Zambia. I remember what one of the UNHCR guys said: don't feel sorry for them, believe in them. Believing in them means offering them the tools to chase their dreams.

"This sport has taught me a lot about how to manage my emotions, my fears and my instincts," said Niccolo Campriani. "I want to help these guys to have a better control of their body, to manage their breathing, to read their heartbeat. It's about moving on from the fears of your past, not forgetting but learning how to deal with it, in order to focus on the present moment. It's a process of self-discovery and I'd like to transfer these skills".

IOC -Campriani's project only relies on crowdfunding and donations

"I found a reason to go back to the shooting range"

Leaving a legacy beyond sport plays a big part in this project. "My role as Olympic champion didn't end with my last shot in Rio. Being Olympic champion is a responsibility, we are role models and we have the power of influencing people, whether we like it or not. "After spending many years on improving myself, it was time to roll my sleeves up and give back."

Can a former athlete, looking to find his own new identity, be compared to some young migrants, starting a new life from zero in a different country? "I understand it's a bold thing to say, but we live a similar journey, we both need to redefine our identity and integrate into a new community." Campriani remarked. "It's a process to reach different goals. It's also a way to make peace with my sport. After the Olympic final in Rio I never shot again because I had enough of it, because somehow I transformed my passion into an obsession. I ended up hating my sport and didn't want it to end this way. Now I found a reason to go back to the shooting range."

Getty Images

Last February, Niccolo picked up his air rifle for the first time after almost three years. He admitted he was a bit ashamed when he asked for it back from the Olympic Museum. It was the donation he made after Rio 2016. The former shooter is investing his own free time and resources and heavily relies on his network.

IOC - Khaoula is one of the refugees taking part in the project

The shooting community and his former sponsors have provided all the equipment needed, including air rifles, uniforms and electronic targets. "We are a big family, over the last few years, I spent more time with Kamenskiy, the Russian shooter that I beat in Rio, than with my mum!" he admitted. "We shared a lot of experiences together, we are similar in many ways and when I presented my project, everyone was happy to contribute somehow, from coaching sessions to equipment donations. But my goal is to expand the project to other sports communities I worked with in the past."


Eyes on Tokyo 2020

"We are all on a personal journey, qualifying for Tokyo, the sport outcome, comes second. The main goal is to live this experience together," Campriani added. "It took me almost two years to reach the minimum qualifying Olympic score that makes you eligible for a wild card. This is a bit of an experiment. These guys train at the World Archery Excellence Centre in Lausanne, they have only me as a reference, they can't compare themselves with other shooters. If things go as they should, I'm confident that at least one of them will go to Tokyo. We'll know it next June when the IOC Executive Board will announce the next Olympic refugee team. In any case, this project has no finish line, regardless of the outcome, this will be a life-long friendship. After many years, I almost forgot the feeling of chasing an Olympic qualification. It's nice to live it again, although through someone else's eyes."

You will be able to follow the selection process and the full training of the refugees athletes in early 2020, when Olympic Channel's original series 'Taking Refuge' will be released. "I met Niccolo when working on another series called Day Jobs," Olympic Channel producer Nicolas Delloye said. "We portrayed Olympic athletes working to make ends meet. He mentioned his idea and we immediately jumped on board to feature this amazing adventure."