Tracking the Ups and Downs of the Athlete Refugee Team in “RUN”
Over the course of three years, filmmaker Richard Bullock followed the Athlete Refugee Team as its members competed at the World Championships, sought asylum in Europe, and saw their Olympic dreams halted by COVID-19.
By Jonathan Gault
June 29, 2020
Early in the film RUN, we are given a tour of a cramped bedroom, the camera panning across to reveal three metal bunk beds. One of the room’s residents, Rose Nathike, is asked a few seemingly innocuous questions. Who sleeps below you? Does anybody snore? Do you mind sharing a room? Nathike smiles through the first two, but turns serious as she answers the last one. A deeper truth emerges.
“If we are told to share, we just share,” Nathike says. “Because we are not here permanently. This is not your place.”
The bedroom is part of a camp run by former marathon world record holder Tegla Loroupe on the outskirts of Nairobi for members of the Athlete Refugee Team, a group of refugees from across Africa who train for the opportunity to compete in international competitions such as the World Championships and Olympics. The camp may be Nathike’s residence for almost 12 months a year, but it is not home. Around Christmas, she takes a two-day bus trip to visit her family at the UN refugee camp in Kakuma, in northwestern Kenya. But that’s not home either. Not really. When you are a refugee, you no longer have a home.
The Athlete Refugee Team is easy to root for, a group of athletes with painful pasts dedicating themselves to the sport of running in the hopes of making it to the sport’s greatest stage. But RUN (not to be confused with Runner, which deals with a similar subject), directed by Richard Bullock and released earlier this month with the support of Swiss running brand On, is no Hollywood feel-good story. Though there are moments of joy when the athletes get to compete at the World Championships in London and the World Relays in Yokohama, the most intriguing parts are when the story gets messy.
In London, two members of the team disappear after their races to seek asylum in the United Kingdom, a fact Bullock largely glosses over. Then two more intentionally miss their connection in Germany while traveling back from the Asian Indoor Games. Once it happens a third time following a road race in Geneva in 2019, Bullock travels to Switzerland and successfully tracks them down. It’s probably not the story he envisioned he’d be telling when he began the project, but it’s the one that needs to be told.
The Athlete Refugee Team, for all the good it does, is temporary. These aren’t American athletes with college degrees to fall back on once their careers are over. They are refugees, coming from nothing. Training for the Olympics is a noble goal, but when their Olympic quest is over, where do they go? What do they do?
“I win the race, they never give me anything, just give me the trophy,” says Dominic Lokinyomo, one of the refugees who fled to Switzerland. “This trophy, what will I do with this trophy? I’m going to eat this trophy?”
Now, even those who had a temporary home in Nairobi are faced with those questions. No one in RUN gets to complete their 2020 Olympic journey; not yet, at least. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Loroupe closed the camp and sent the athletes back to their refugee camps, putting their dreams on pause, another hurdle in the lives of individuals who have already seen too many.
You can watch RUN: The Athlete Refugee Team Story in its entirety below: