At the opening ceremonies, one flag stood out amongst the sea of more than 200 countries and 11,000 athletes traipsing the Olympic conveyor belt leading into Rio’s Maracanã Stadium – a simple white flag marked with the five Olympic rings and carried by Rose Nathike Lokonyen.
Lokonyen is a refugee who fled South Sudan in 2002, and is one of ten athletes making up the Olympic Refugee Team (six men and four women) who fled their homes and the unrest in their respective countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Syria – yet were still able to compete with the world’s best.
The fact that more than half of those are runners, four of which (including Lokonyen) come from the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, nods to the egalitarian nature of the sport. In essence, all you need to do is move, and move fast.
In Lokonyen’s case, the 23-year-old wasn’t even wearing shoes when she was discovered.
The Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation held scouting trials in the camp in 2015, Lokonyen told the Rio Olympic media team in an interview.
“It was just a competition, we competed among the refugees. Some of us were running without shoes, like me, I was running barefoot. We ran 10km and I became the number two,” said the South Sudanese Olympian who has been running since high school.
Amongst the summer sports, running is by far one of the great equalizers of athletics. In the women’s 800m race, 65 athletes from more than 45 countries competed. It’s especially inexpensive when contrasted with sports like equestrian, which costs around £20,000 (C$33,500) at the low-end for an international standard horse and can rise upwards into the millions, especially for the world’s best equestrian Olympians. Cyclists can shell out a comparable amount for a proper cycle.
A report by Forbes analyzing the previous summer Olympics in 2012 puts the cost for chasing the archery dream around US$25,000 annually including coaching, equipment, trips, and practice at the range. While Olympic-worthy fencing gear can be had for $1,200, the overall cost falls closer to US$20,000 when training is taken into consideration as well, according to Forbes.
Perennial Olympic medalist and professional shooter Kim Rhode, who holds the record for winning five consecutive medals, suspects it has cost her US$700,000 to US$1.5 million annually to get to where she is. At 500 to 1,000 rounds a day and US$16 per 25 shots for targets and ammunition and $6,000 to $300,000 for the gun (Rhodes spent between US$20,000 to US$30,000 for her custom gun) it’s not surprising to see this sport add up.
On the more affordable side of things, parents aspiring to create little Olympians could consider enrolling their kids in sports like handball, basketball, soccer or rugby, all of which require more team dues than anything and training could be offset later in life by scholarships.
To get started with weightlifting only requires a set of weights or a gym membership. Badminton is also inexpensive too; you can pick up a set for $20. Table tennis is also fairly cheap to get into with a table and paddles costing under $100.
But despite the affordability of learning these sports, running still stands out as the most democratic with the costs of entry for a shot at glory embodying the original spirit of the Olympics.
As James Chiengjiek, a fellow refugee of Lokonyen living at Kakuma and wearing the Refugee team flag pointed out “if God gives you a talent, you have to use it” even if you don’t have proper footwear.
“We all got injuries because of the wrong shoes we had,” Chiengjiek told the Olympic Committee. “Then we shared. If maybe you have two pairs of shoes, then you help the one that has none.”