World Refugee Day: The Man Who Gave Up His Olympic Place
There is a family photo and it looks normal.
Everyone is gathered outside by a tree, the kids have bright clothes, and some of them aren’t looking the right way. The parents beam with pride.
But war has left a scar, invisible to some, in this photo.
The grandparents are missing. It’s because Grandma and Grandpa have died.
There’s another man missing from the photo. A 27-year-old, who had to flee his country and leave his family because of war. His name is Gatkuoth Puok Thiep.
“I never knew there was something called peace,” he said to the Olympic Channel Podcast.
“I never knew that people were not fighting in other countries.”
One day his family were sharing a meal. The next day people fled the village because of the fighting. Gatkuoth was left alone.
He was homeless, hungry, and had no one. A neighbour from his town was also hiding out in the bush. Together they travelled on a grass raft down the River Nile for months.
He didn’t know whether he was going to live or die.
He got word that his father was dead, shot fighting in the front line.
“My dad used to love me so much. He used to make sure that I was a good boy – a son with a good heart.”
But, there was no time to mourn. Gatkuoth’s raft journey came to an end when he was captured by soldiers.
After a month-and-a-half locked up, living on just a cup of tea per day, a ransom was paid and he was free to make his way to Nairobi in Kenya.
Gatkuoth started to rebuild his life, and met Kenyan runner Tegla Laroupe who has set up a camp for talented refugee runners to train near Nairobi.
Missing papers meant he couldn’t register as a refugee, so he left to find his mother and sister in South Sudan. He thought the war had eased.
Once he’d arrived back, he learnt quickly that home still wasn’t safe.
“When I went back there was this conflict of clan – community to community. It became dangerous and it was even (worse) than the war.”
A Dark Night
His return was seen as a threat and, one night, there was a loud bang.
The attack was meant to kill him – instead it killed his mother.
“In the morning, the ambush came. They bombed the room where my mum was, and then they ran away.”
Her body was strewn across the land.
“I saw my mum, she has been cut into three pieces – the legs and then (the) chest together with the head..”
His 15-year-old sister was also in his hut. She didn’t survive.
In the space of two years, he had lost his father, mother and sister.
A distant uncle sold a cow to help financially. Two weeks later Gatkuoth was back in Nairobi fending for himself.
Back With Tegla
Fortunately, Tegla Loroupe was waiting, and he started organised training for the first time.
Gatkuoth spent the first part of his life running away. Now, he had become a runner.
“It makes me feel good. It makes me forget what I have gone through.
“When I meet my friends (and) enjoy the training, we chat about (sport and) who ran well.”
It’s hard to believe that for a long time he didn’t actually know that running was anything other than a means of transport.
He saw competitive running on TV, gave it a try, and showed some natural talent.
Gatkuoth was given the chance to represent the refugee team at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games – but he turned the opportunity down.
He just thought that other people were more deserving.
“By then, the Olympics were giving only 10 (slots) in the refugee team.
“Remember that refugees, they are all over the world.”
“By then there was a guy (Yonas Kinde) who is from Ethiopia who was in Brazil. He is also a refugee and a marathoner.
"I believe in myself (but) I feel for other people.” – Gatkuoth told the Olympic Channel
Now, he spends his days training and hopes to make it to Tokyo 2020.
“If it comes and there is no obstacle on it, I will go and am looking for it.”
The family have never been reunited. A sister and brother are in Sudan. Another brother is in Uganda. They don’t know where one sister is – Hopefully she is safe.
“(Their mindset is) if you didn’t die today, you will die tomorrow.”
Yet, Gatkuoth remains resolute with a message of hope.
“The world has to know that a refugee can do anything. And even the refugees themselves must know that they can do anything.
“Wherever they are, whether you are in a camp or in a place, whereby you feel like that your life is not the way you want, people have to know that your life can change.
“And it has to be changed by you.
“The word refugee is only the name."
This is a transcript from the Olympic Channel Podcast. Check out more weekly episodes.