Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

Refugee pushes through pain to make history in Tokyo Marathon

Refugee athlete Yonas Kinde is interviewed after finishing the Tokyo Marathon 2020.

Refugee pushes through pain to make history in Tokyo Marathon

Despite battling cramp and fatigue, first ever refugee athlete to compete as an elite runner in the Tokyo Marathon crosses the finish line to win hearts and minds.
1 March 2020
Refugee athlete Yonas Kinde is interviewed after finishing the Tokyo Marathon 2020.

Sitting on the ground after the finish line, Yonas Kinde pants heavily for air. His running shoes lie beside him, removed to bring some relief to his feet which are swollen by the race. He is tired and in pain, but nothing can hide the enormous sense of achievement that lights up his brown eyes.

Today, the 39-year-old Ethiopian refugee made his dream come true by successfully completing the Tokyo Marathon, becoming the first refugee in the history of the event to compete as an elite runner.

“I dreamed about running in Tokyo since I was a child. This is mainly a flat course, which allows athletes to have good results. It is one of the greatest road races in the world,” Yonas explained. “But most importantly, this is the city where my great idol, the Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila, successfully defended his Olympic title in 1964.”

Finishing the race in 2 hours 24 minutes and 34 seconds – some 20 minutes behind the race winner – Yonas achieved a similar time to his effort in the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the biggest international competition of his career so far.

Yonas participated at Rio 2016 as member of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team created by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

“I wanted to break my personal record, but it was not possible today, as I got slowed down by a cramp in my stomach after the thirtieth kilometer,” he says. “What brought me strength was the cheer of the people. They stood by me, they called my name in every kilometer: ‘Go Yonas’, ‘Go Kinde’. While running, I was focusing my thoughts on those affected by the coronavirus outbreak, and on refugee children across the world, who are running across borders to find safety and peace.”

"He never gave up."

"He made it to the finish line and that was not a small thing. He had to stop after the 35th kilometer and he had to stretch and walk, but he never gave up. That touched me and made me cry," adds Yonas's coach in Japan, Naruyoshi Karasawa, who works for Japan for UNHCR, the fundraising partner of the UN Refugee Agency in the country.

When he was a child, Yonas’ family lived in a rural part of Ethiopia. At the age of 14 or 15, he became interested in competing in school running competitions. His teacher advised him to run from home to school and back as practice, covering a distance of 16 kilometers each day. This is what forged his will to become a marathon runner.

Now living in Luxembourg, Yonas is training as an IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship Holder, hoping to secure selection for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. “If I am selected, I will do my best,” he says.

“If I am not selected, I am happy that there will be other athletes, who will represent the refugees in the Refugee Olympic Team. I hope that everyone, especially the Japanese public, will cheer on the refugees as if it was their own national team.”