When Madina Biktagirova came in second place at the New York City marathon in 1994, she thought she’d won it. Little did she know that 2.5 minutes earlier, unknown Tegla Loroupe had already crossed the line, becoming the first black African woman ever to win a marathon on the world stage.
“I was just so excited that someone from such a small tribal community could run and defeat other women from across the world,” says Tegla, her trademark smile wide at the memory.
“I was always being dropped from the team,” she recalls, “they just didn’t believe that I would be someone to do good things. But winning the New York marathon opened doors not just for me but for other women.
“I fought my way through not for myself, but for other women who couldn’t believe in themselves. For them to see that there was someone who has been there fighting for them, to make a difference.”
Tegla went on to become one of the most successful female athletes of the 90s and 2000s, winning many half- and full-marathon titles and setting world records for 25 km, 30 km and marathon distances.
“I think I found breaking records easier because I was always training with men, and I knew I could keep up with them,” she says.
Born in the West Pokot District of Kenya in 1973, Tegla was one of 24 siblings and had to fight to attend school, instead of following the usual path for women in her tribe – tending the animals, children and the land.
When she did start school, she walked or ran the 9 km journey every day, barefoot. Not until secondary school did she start to realize running was something that she was good at – easily winning races against the boys. But, even with this natural talent for running, her main childhood ambition was to be a peacemaker.
“I grew up in an area of conflict,” explains Tegla. “People would always be fighting over resources. Land, animals, water… And when men are fighting, it is the women who suffer… When I grew up, I wanted to find a way for people to listen to me – but for that to happen you need a title. At that time, I didn’t realize that sports could help me to be the way I am. Those two sides of myself came together, to help me work for peace.”
The path Tegla has taken gives her much-needed credibility within the local communities – to spread awareness about the importance of education, and sports.
When she first attended school, and later when she would travel for training, Tegla’s family were met with opposition from other members of their village, who didn’t understand why a girl should be allowed to abandon her duties to take care of her family and their animals.
“This was my true way,” she says. “It’s impossible to educate people about something you didn’t go through yourself. And now, when I talk about sports, people understand. They see that a girl from a tribe like theirs can bring wealth to a family through sports and education.”
Competing in her first races at school, Tegla noticed the unique power of sports to bring people together. This was an opportunity for kids to be kids, to come together regardless of their tribes and cheer each other on.
“All through my training in Europe, I would be trying to find a way to bring this atmosphere home,” says Tegla. “I was always searching for what I could do to bring communities together to talk and appreciate each other.”
In 2003, Tegla began her Peace Foundation and launched the first Peace Race – a 10 km race in her home community of Pokot. Now held annually, it’s a day when tribes that would on any other day be at war, come together as comrades, and see each other as equals, not enemies. In just three years of races, two of Kenya’s most-wanted warriors had ceased fighting, and tribal deaths were almost down to zero.
The Peace Race continues to forge links between the tribes, reduce tension and encourage interaction across borders. Its success is improved by the miniature “Peace Ambassadors” – children from the Tegla Loroupe Peace Academy that opened in 2012, a school dedicated to education, sports and providing unity to the area.
Tegla continued to run and compete until she broke her last world record in 2006, and was also named a UN Ambassador of Sport in the same year. With fellow ambassador George Clooney, she traveled around the world speaking about the Darfur Crisis in China, Egypt and Turkey before visiting the refugees in Sudan.
“That’s when I realized that I could no longer focus 100% on sports,” says Tegla.
Refugees have always been close to Tegla’s heart. Many settled in her own community of West Pokot after fleeing the war in Sudan, and she went to school and trained with some of them.
“For me, I got to go to Europe and train but for them, they couldn’t go anywhere,” she says. “As an athlete, I always felt so bad that these kids are not criminals but they are stuck, so they are being wasted. I wished I had the power to get them out of the country, to pursue sports like me.”
After training refugees herself; with the support of Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, Tegla was able to create the Refugee Olympic Team in 2015. Now, together with the backing of the Kenyan government, Tegla is able to scout displaced athletes from UN refugee camps to train together – overcoming obstacles of sponsorship, prejudice and culture shock along the way.
“Refugees are very resilient people,” says Tegla. “They’ve been through hard lives, and they are still standing tall.”
Having just returned from national competition in Nairobi with their relay team, the 30-strong Athlete Refugee Team is now training with the Kenyans, and have the rescheduled 2020 games in their sights, with Tegla at the helm as Chef de Mission.
“It would be so encouraging for them,” she said. “To make it to the finals, representing the millions of refugees around the world.”
Along with her work with the Athlete Refugee Team, her Peace Foundation, the Peace Races, work with the Peace Academy and outreach work with the women of Kenya – how does this powerhouse of peace relax? Getting back to her roots. Staying with her family, her favorite moments are taking care of the animals, and collecting and cutting firewood with the local women.
She even tested out our new Cloudridge hiking boot on the tough Kenyan terrain. Her verdict? “You will not fall down, I am telling you!” It’s a comment that feels somehow poignant coming from a woman who has dedicated her life to helping others stand tall.
To learn more about Tegla’s work with the Athlete Refugee Team, and find out how On is supporting the project, watch the feature film here.