Tuesday , July 23 2024

Switzerland’s most successful runner fears for Olympic participation.

Dominic Lobalu won two medals at the European Championships. Once a refugee from South Sudan, the 25-year-old athlete now wants to hunt for medals for Switzerland at the Olympic Games in Paris – but the permission to compete is still pending.

The Swiss delegation provided a great moment for Swiss athletics at the European Championships in Rome and won more medals than ever before. Looking back on the competitions, there are many reasons for a positive balance.

Never before has the Swiss delegation at a European Championships been so large: 60 athletes travelled to Rome. Mujinga Kambundji was the first Swiss woman to win her second gold medal. A premiere was also achieved in the 200-metre sprint: For the first time, Switzerland triumphed in this discipline in both the women’s and men’s races. Last Saturday is particularly memorable, when Switzerland won four medals in one evening – another novelty.

One who stands out from the historic team is Dominic Lobalu. On the one hand, because the 25-year-old from South Sudan travels back to Switzerland with two medals in his luggage (bronze in the 5000 m, gold in the 10,000 m), and on the other hand, because his path to Rome was particularly full of hurdles.

The long wait for the first start

Although Lobalu is one of the best long-distance runners in the world and has lived in Switzerland since 2019, the European Championships in Rome were his first title fight in the red and white dress. The reason for this is actually obvious, because Lobalu is not yet a Swiss citizen.

Although the Swiss Athletics association had been trying for a long time to obtain a permit from the world governing body (World Athletics) so that the exceptional runner could start for Switzerland, the latter issued a three-year waiting period for the time being. For example, Lobalu would not have been allowed to compete for Switzerland until April 2026 – that’s a lot of time in the life of a top athlete.

Then the U-turn: As part of the reconsideration procedure requested by the Swiss federation, World Athletics granted Lobalu the right to compete within the Swiss delegation in May. And Lobalu already showed his class at the first title fights.

This eligibility to start is the only opportunity for the runner from eastern Switzerland to compete in major competitions. Since he has a B permit in Switzerland, he is no longer officially considered a refugee and is therefore no longer allowed to compete for the “Athlete Refugee Team”, for which he ran during his time as a refugee in Kenya. However, Lobalu had already left the refugee team in 2019. On the one hand, because it was not he, but the people behind the refugee team who collected the prize money, and on the other hand, because he wanted to build up his own existence.

As is well known, many roads lead to Rome. For Lobalu, this path was above all a detour. Born in South Sudan, he fled an attack on his village at the age of eight. His parents were killed, Lobalu was left to fend for himself. Via detours, he finally came to a Kenyan orphanage, but also lived on the streets for a while. The only constant in his childhood and adolescent years between chair and bench: running. How much talent the now 25-year-old brought with him at a young age is shown by the fact that he even won races in Kenya, the country of runners.

In 2019, Lobalu travelled to Geneva with the Athlete Refugee Team, left the hotel at night and applied for asylum at the federal asylum centre in Vallorbe. In 2019, his odyssey came to an end for the time being: Lobalu has been living in eastern Switzerland for several years, where he can once again do what he loves best: running, at LC Brühl.

Lobalu impressively showed at the European Championships in Rome that he belongs to the world’s best in his disciplines. For Swiss athletics, which has been waiting for an Olympic medal since 1988, it would be all the more pleasing if Lobalu was also allowed to compete at the Olympic Games in Paris. The decision-making authority lies with the Olympic Committee (IOC).

The question that the IOC Executive Council in Lausanne is currently debating: Will the application for a start for Switzerland be granted or will the IOC force him into his own refugee team, despite having a B permit? According to the Olympic rules, a passport is actually a mandatory requirement for an Olympic start. Lobalu himself would be happy to start for Switzerland. “Switzerland is the right country for me,” he told SRF in yesterday’s winner’s interview.

Christoph Seiler, President of Swiss Athletics, would have little sympathy for a negative IOC decision: “It would be a strange logic that is not enforceable in my view. The professional association has confirmed the eligibility to compete in Switzerland. If the passport is the only criterion for whether someone is at home in a country, then that would make me think,” he said. Seiler addressed the fact that the way to the pass varies greatly depending on the country and, above all, varies in length.

“I want to be the first refugee to win a medal,” Lobalu said in 2019. If it works out with a start in Paris, the runner could get one step closer to his wish. But the competition is huge. The world record in 5000 m is 12:35.36, run by Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei, who will also compete in Paris. Lobalu’s Swiss record over the same distance is 12:50.90.

But: A time of 12:58.15 was enough for Cheptegei to win Olympic gold three years ago in Tokyo, at major events he rarely runs for a top time, but tactically. Lobalus doesn’t have to hide – if he is allowed to start.

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