As soon as the gun sounds at the start of his first Olympic 5,000-meter race, Jamal Mohammed knows his nerves will disappear.
“It’s always like that,” Mohammed told CNN Sport. “You can’t really stay nervous after the gun goes; you just focus on running and following others.”
In the lead up to the Tokyo Olympics, Mohammed has been taking his preparation for the 5,000-meter heats on Tuesday one step at a time. Sometimes, however, he pauses to reflect on where he’s come from and where he is now.
In 2010, Mohammed left the Sudanese province of Darfur for Israel, undertaking a three-day journey that meant crossing the unforgiving landscape of Egypt’s Sinai Desert on foot. After his father was killed by the Janjaweed, the government-back militia operating in Sudan, he had been forced to work from a young age to support his family.
Now settled in Tel Aviv, Israel, Mohammed has built a new life and a career in running.
Having joined the Alley Runners, a club specifically designed to support the city’s disadvantaged communities, seven years ago, on Tuesday he faces the biggest race of his life in Tokyo where he will compete for the Refugee Olympic Team.
At the Rio Olympics, where the refugee team debuted in 2016, 10 athletes competed under the Olympic flag. In Tokyo, the team has grown to 29 athletes competing across 12 different sports.
“I’m going to compete for 80 million people around the world who left their countries to go to find a better place for them and help them achieve their goals,” Mohammed tells CNN Sport.
“There are a lot of reasons why refugees left their countries. It makes me so proud to represent these people and let them know anything is possible. They are also able to achieve their goals. Anything can come true one day.”
Mohammed’s preparation for the Olympics over the past month has involved a two-week training camp at altitude in Italy and 10 days in Doha, Qatar, to convene with the Refugee Olympic Team.
Since the start of last week, he’s been based at the Olympic Village in Tokyo, completing the final training sessions before his race.
A ‘politicized’ issue
The Refugee Olympic Team, established by the International Olympic Committee, is comprised of athletes from 11 different countries, living and training in 13 host countries.
This year, with the Games taking place amid the Covid-19 pandemic, their stories and their inclusion in the Olympic movement feel more relevant than ever, according to Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“We’ve all shared hardship and deprivation and separation from loved ones; we’ve all lived through a sort of collective exile,” Grandi tells CNN Sport.
“All these young men and women, in addition to Covid, have behind them a history of deprivation, separation from loved ones, real, physical exile. Somehow they carried a double symbolism in that entrance in the Olympic Stadium (for the Opening Ceremony of the Games).”
In Europe, the pandemic has exacerbated the migrant crisis. Humanitarian organizations say that pushbacks at borders in countries such as Greece, an absence of sea rescues in the Mediterranean, and unhealthy quarantine arrangements have created huge challenges.
Restrictions on movement, as well as the closure of transport routes and processing centers, have made travel harder and more dangerous.
“The refugee issue, the migration issue, the issue of people on the move out of different necessities has become so politicized, so manipulated by unscrupulous politicians,” says Grandi.
“And very often, these people move because they flee from war, from persecution. And in the case of migrants, which is a different group of people, they flee because of very hard necessity.
“All these people have been portrayed wrongly as people that come to threaten affluent societies, steal jobs, weaken values, bring insecurity – in a very negative way.
“Refugees bring enormous contributions, help build nations, help make economies more prosperous, bring diversity to societies. I think we need to look at it in this way. And this is the deepest and most important message of this team.”
The Refugee Olympic Team is yet to win its first Olympic medal. Kimia Alizadeh, who previously competed for Iran, came the closest after winning her first three taekwondo fights in Tokyo. She then lost her next two, including the bronze medal fight.
“It would be an incredible message of achievement, of hope in the future for millions and millions,” says Grandi of what a medal would mean for one of the team’s athletes.
“There are 82.4 million refugees and displaced people around the world; this is their team, too.”
Even without a medal, the very presence of these athletes’ at the Olympics – and the journeys they have taken to get here – is enough to inspire.
Mohammed has his own goals for the Games: run a time of 13:30 in the 5,000 meters and qualify for the final.
“It’s like a dream come true (to be here),” he says. “I’m just waiting for event day to pull on my kit and give it all my best. I’m really feeling good.”