Tegla Loroupe: the Kenyan woman behind the historic Refugee Olympic team

This Refugee Week, find out more about the athlete, turned activist, who helped a group of 10 displaced sportspeople find hope and acclaim at the Rio 2016 Games

25 June 2017 // Loyce Odhiambo

The Refugee Olympic Team was one of the highlights of the Rio 2016 Games, acting as a symbol of hope to some 65 million displaced people. Each of the 10 athletes, from Syria, Congo, Ethiopia and South Sudan, had a phenomenal story of courage and determination to tell. And so does the group’s ‘chef de mission’, Kenyan marathon runner, Tegla Loroupe.

As the plight and contributions of refugees are remembered this World Refugee Week, we’ve scoured the web to find out things you probably didn’t know about this history-making African woman.

Loroupe’s training was running to school barefoot

Barefoot running might be a trend today but as a six year old growing up in rural Kenya, it was simply Loroupe’s reality. Even after she began to compete, she preferred to run with no shoes on, completing the 1988 10,000m cross-country race at the Goodwill Games in New York City barefoot. Though she ended up buying running shoes the following year, Loroupe is said to have barely used them. She would however later provide trainers to promising young female athletes from her village.

Her father try to ban her from running

Laroupe’s father wanted his daughter to be more ‘lady-like’ so the young woman was expected to then concentrate on more ‘useful’ activities such as looking after her 24 siblings from her father’s four wives. So dismayed by patriarchy, Laroupe admits she considered becoming a nun. Speaking later about her relationship with her father, Loroupe said: “Of course we’re friends now. When you’re successful, everyone wants to be your friend.”

head of refugee olympic team, Tela Laroupe

Tegla Laroupe. Credit: CC 3.0 license/ In Your Face Women

She is a pioneer for equality in sport

At the age of 21, Laroupe became the first African woman to win the New York Marathon in 1994, finishing the race in 2 hours, 27 minutes and 37 seconds. Her record stood for over a decade but Loroupe was interested in doing more than just breaking records, she wanted to break stereotypes. After her 1994 win, the athlete whose Kalenjin nickname, Chametia, means “the one who never gets annoyed”, said;  “I want to show that women don’t need to feel like useless people.” Laroupe was not simply the one to beat, in Kenya and elsewhere across Africa, she became the one to emulate. Back in her village women presented her with 16 merino sheep, 9 cows saying: “See, we are like the men, we can do things.”

From sports champion to advocate for peace

In 2006 Loroupe was made a United Nations ambassador of sports by former UN secretary general, Koffi Annan. In that role, Hollywood actor George Clooney would accompany her to Darfur to raise awareness of the conflict in western Sudan. Not satisfied with a title and a photo op, Loroupe has gotten her hands dirty with her organisation, the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation. According to the New York Times, Loroupe has “mediated tribal disputes over grazing land, water and cattle raising. In 2010, she persuaded 700 members of her tribe, the Pokot people, to surrender 38 guns as part of an anti-rustling campaign.” In October 2016, Laroupe was named United Nations Person of the Year, in a ceremony in Nairobi.

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