Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

‘Representing worldwide refugees is more than representing a country’: Yonas Kinde on fulfilling his Olympic dream

Posted on 20 June 2020 by Danny Clark
Photo credit: UNHCR

“Sport teaches you how to win in life.”

This is the message Olympic marathon runner Yonas Kinde wants to share with refugees and disadvantaged people across the world.

Born and raised in Ethiopia, Yonas was forced to leave his native country due to political problems and has lived in Luxembourg since 2012.

“The biggest challenge is leaving your family and friends, and starting a new life in another country with different things like culture, language and weather conditions,” he explained.

Yonas, who turned 40 last month, began running in Ethiopia as a teenager; initially in cross-country and 10,000m events, before converting to the full marathon.

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Upon his arrival in Luxembourg, the Ethiopian continued to pursue his passion for running, and quickly became the best marathon runner in the country.

Several race wins in Luxembourg followed, as well as impressive titles in both France and Germany.

Reflecting on the challenges he faced integrating into a new community, Yonas paid particular credit to the powerful vehicle of sport.

“I’m crazy for running from a child until now, I love it,” he said.

“In my whole life, sport has helped me to get stronger and to integrate with local people in the community.

“It [also] keeps me busy and healthy.”

Olympic bow

Yonas was given the ultimate opportunity to showcase his ability in 2016 as he competed at the Rio Olympics as part of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team.

The team, set up by the International Olympic Committee to reflect the ever-growing refugee crisis and the plight of millions of displaced people across the world, consisted of ten athletes – a “symbol of hope” for all refugees worldwide.

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Among the nine other athletes were two swimmers, two judokas and five medium-distance runners.

“When I think about the Rio Olympics I get full of energy,” explained Yonas. “They [IOC] created a beautiful family and we all achieved our goals.”

“My dream came true. I felt like a respected human being and I am so proud to have been a part of the Team.”

Yonas had previously recorded a personal best marathon time of two hours and 17 minutes at the Frankfurt Marathon in October 2015.

Despite his time being fast enough to meet Olympic qualifying standards, Yonas’ refugee status prevented him from being able to compete for his country in all international competitions.

However, as he explains, this adversity, combined with subsequent selection for the inaugural Refugee Olympic Team in the summer of 2016, provided him with not only added strength, but also a heightened sense of responsibility.

“That Olympic race was special for me and my team,” he said.

“During the race I was thinking about the pain of refugees and the suffering of children around the world.

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“Representing worldwide refugees is more than representing a country.”

Yonas finished the marathon in two hours and 24 minutes, a time which placed him 90th of 140 runners.

Training towards Tokyo 2021

Four years on from fulfilling his Olympic dream, Yonas still trains and competes as an elite marathon runner.

However, with all major sporting competitions this summer postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic, he will have to wait another year to target his next Olympic opportunity.

“I think the postponement is the best choice considering this critical situation which is happening almost everywhere in the world,” Yonas admitted.

“I would like to thank the Japanese community, the International Olympic Committee, the World Health Organisation and all others that have been working for our safety and to protect us.”

Looking ahead to the rescheduled Games in Tokyo next summer, Yonas expressed his admiration of the city having competed in the Tokyo Marathon earlier this year.

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By competing in the race, he also became the first refugee in history to compete as an elite runner at the event.

“I had the chance to see the preparations and atmosphere in Tokyo when I ran the marathon,” he said.

“I’m sorry for the Japanese community because they were very happy to be welcoming the Games and they had been ready and prepared for this year.

“I hope the atmosphere and strength will stay until 2021 and the Japanese community will welcome the Refugee Olympic Team and all other Olympians.”

The Ethiopian is one of 50 refugee athletes currently listed on the Refugee Athlete Support Programme, a scheme designed to closely monitor and help those hoping to be selected as part of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team for Tokyo 2021.

While inclusion on the shortlist is only a first step towards securing a place on the final Team, he remains in the best possible position to target a second successive appearance at the Games.

Despite this, it’s evident that the main priority for Yonas is not his own individual achievement, but the success and global representation of the Refugee Team.

Photo credit: olympic.org

“It could be an amazing second experience for me. If not, there will be other refugee athletes that will represent me,” he said.

“The dream of the next Refugee Olympic Team is the same. Our hope is still there because we are the symbol of hope.”

While it’s difficult not to be moved by such potent words, the message remains an incredibly important one.

For young displaced people across the world, sport can often provide hope amidst the struggle.

Yonas is an example to all refugee athletes that despite adversity they too can succeed in achieving their goals.