Follow refugee shooters in their bid to reach Olympic Games

Original series 'Taking Refuge' tells the story of three novice competitors mentored by Olympic champ Niccolo Campriani as they take aim at Tokyo 2020.

By Rory Jiwani

Olympic Channel's 'Taking Refuge', released on Monday (15 June), is an inspirational and emotional documentary series following three refugees in their bid to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

After quitting competitive shooting at the end of Rio 2016, Niccolo Campriani needed new direction.

Inspired by the first Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) at the Rio Games and a visit to a refugee camp in Zambia, Italy's three-time gold medallist wanted to make good use of his status as an Olympic champion.

Campriani decided he would find a couple of refugees based near his home in Lausanne and help them try to achieve the Minimum Qualifying Score (MQS) in 10m air rifle which would make them eligible to compete at Tokyo 2020.

He ended up with three novice shooters - Khaoula, Mahdi and Luna - with 'Taking Refuge' detailing their journey from being selected by Campriani through to international competitions against established athletes.

And the postponement of Tokyo 2020 due to COVID-19 means there is more to come...

"Every day I learn a lot of things in shooting. It helps me a lot in my life." - Refugee shooter Khaoula

How 'Taking Refuge' came about

Campriani admits that after winning gold and silver at London 2012, his passion for his sport became "an obsession".

He grew disillusioned but managed to claim the 10m air rifle title in Rio, going one better than four years previously.

Then followed a strong defence of his 50m rifle 3 positions crown, but Sergey Kamenskiy looked to have got the better of him in the final.

The Russian needed just 8.7 with his last shot for gold with 9.2 his worst standing position score in the final up to that point.

He only managed 8.3 to hand Campriani his third Olympic title and one the reigning champion felt he did not deserve at the end of his career.

"It's over. For eight seconds, I'm the silver medallist. And then after his shot, I'm the new Olympic champion.

"I really struggled to accept that. I was so happy with that silver medal that winning the gold that way, I didn't feel that I earned it." - Niccolo Campriani

Campriani donated the difference in prize money between silver and gold to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

That led to an invitation to Zambia's Meheba Refugee Camp, one of the biggest in Africa, which planted the seed of the project.

In March 2019, he invited refugees from EVAM - the canton of Vaud's welcoming service for immigrants and refugees - to a selection day in which they were shown the basics of how to fire an air rifle.

He had intended to choose one male and one female shooter on the day, but it was "too close to call" between two women - Luna (originally from Eritrea) and Khaoula (Palestine) - and both were picked with the latter the mother of a young boy.

There was no doubt about the male shooter with Mahdi, from Afghanistan but more recently living in Iran, being selected.

(L-R): Niccolo Campriani with refugee shooters Luna, Mahdi and Khaoula

Making progress

The trio trained with Campriani three times a week, honing their skills before taking part in their first competition - last July's Italian National Championships in Bologna.

After achieving solid scores, they have continued to train and improve with the sport of shooting giving them increased confidence as well as the tools to deal with life as a refugee.

While they try not to dwell on the past, all three have experienced extreme hardship in their lives with Luna and Mahdi both enduring traumatic journeys to Switzerland.

Now they are looking at potentially qualifying for Tokyo with Khaoula telling Olympic Channel in May, "If I don't go to training, I miss my rifle, I miss my target. Everything, I miss it."

While Luna's training has met the odd interruption, Mahdi and Khaoula were able to travel to India at the invitation of Campriani's former rival, Beijing 2008 gold medallist Abhinav Bindra.

While there, the hopefuls took part in a friendly match which included World Cup winner and Rio 2016 Olympian Apurvi Chandela.

Having made good progress previously, Mahdi struggled to produce his best with Campriani trying to talk him out of his slump.

He said, "For me it's more a mental game and it's something that's helped me to improve my mentality.

"When there are problems, you can't throw your hands in the air. You can't stop." - Mahdi

The end of the beginning

The project started 500 days before the scheduled start of the Tokyo 2020 Games on 24 July.

But the postponement of the Games due to COVID-19 means Campriani will have to call in more favours from his "network" to keep it going another year.

That gives all three shooters, especially Luna, more time to practise and test themselves against the best ahead of the final qualifiers for the Olympic Games.

For Campriani, working with the trio has rekindled his love of the sport.

He is now looking forward to returning to training them normally once the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, and guiding them towards Tokyo.

"The responsibility of an athlete and of an Olympic champion goes beyond the last shot or the last jump or the last metre of his or her career. I'm very grateful to have met Khaoula, Mahdi and Luna and to do this journey with them." - Niccolo Campriani


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