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They came to Kenya as refugees -- and they left as Olympians

David McKenzie, Briana Duggan and Fabien Muhire | 8/1/2016, 9:31 a.m.
It's early morning in the Ngong Hills, on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, and a group of athletes ...
It's early morning in the Ngong Hills, on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, and a group of athletes huddle together in prayer in tracksuits and long pants. It's notoriously chilly this time of year. (David Mckenzie/CNN)

— It's early morning in the Ngong Hills, on the edge of the Great Rift Valley, and a group of athletes huddle together in prayer in tracksuits and long pants. It's notoriously chilly this time of year.

The runners set off from their camp, a converted orphanage, at a modest pace, hopping over puddles and dodging boda boda bikes.

Ngong is a haven for Kenyan runners, the most storied middle-distance champions on the planet, and it's not unusual to bump into an Olympian on the dirt roads here.

But these runners are refugees. They have no flag or country. They fled war and famine -- overcoming enormous odds to be contenders for the world's biggest stage at the Rio Olympics.

An extraordinary experiment

"When they came here first we went out training with the elite athletes at the stadium and they started laughing at them and said, 'coach, what are you doing with these people?' That was very discouraging," says John Anzrah, the refugees' coach.

Anzrah competed for Kenya in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and World Championships. He knows something about the pressure of high-level competition.

He was given eight months to turn raw talent from refugee camps into contenders. It normally takes up to five years, he says.

"As a coach, this has been my biggest challenge. If I succeed with this, then I don't think that anything is impossible," he says.

The runners are part of an extraordinary experiment.

Since the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, the event has always highlighted competition of nation states. But in Rio, for the first time ever, a refugee team will be competing, representing all of those around the globe who have no nation.

Come August 5, the team will enter the Maracanã stadium in the parade of nations holding the five-ring Olympic flag as their standard.

Running for a dream

Rose Nathike has been running her whole life.

She has a distinctive running style, her fists unclenched, slicing the air with her hands. It's not the lithe stride of some east African middle-distance runners. Nathike is compact and powerful, grimacing as she churns by on the dirt murram track.

"All I want is good form running. Start on that side and do six hundred then two by three hundred. I'm not timing you, just good form," Coach Anzrah tells Nathike, his arms and legs mimicking a sprint.

Her event is the 800 meters, which is just short of half a mile. It calls for a combination of speed and endurance. And the training is notoriously difficult.

But not for Nathike.

"Life was so much hard compared to training in this place. The life in Kakuma camp was so hard," she says.

Thirteen years ago, she ran from soldiers in Chukudum, South Sudan. First she fled her village on foot with her family and then squashed in the back of a truck. The South was still ensnared in a brutal civil war with Khartoum. More than two million civilians died in the decades-long conflict.