AIPS / ROME: Dominic Lokinyomo Lobalu has come a long way, after fleeing civil war in his native South Sudan to become a refugee in Kenya.

In early 2016 he was invited to join the training camp for athlete refugees set up by former Marathon World record holder and philanthropist Tegla Loroupe, who led the first historic participation of athlete refugees in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro 2016.

Lobalu was not part of that team, but in April 2017 he was selected for the inaugural participation of the Athlete Refugee Team (ART) in a global athletics championship, running the 4x800m at the first IAAF World Relay Championships in the Bahamas. His international career continued later that year at the World Championships in London and in 2018 at the African Championships in Asaba, Nigeria.

Then in May 2019 he took a decision that would change his life, opting to remain in Switzerland after winning a road race in Geneva.

Lobalu had not defected to look for a better life in Europe: his ambition always was to be an elite athlete, and he believed that remaining in Switzerland would allow him to achieve his goal.

The beginning was not easy: he insisted with the immigration authorities that he needed to train but did not have access to facilities. Finally, as his insistence, they put him in touch with coach Markus Hagmann, who still works with him today.

Dominic laughs when he recalls the phone call placed by the immigration authorities, saying they had a young man who insisted he was an athlete and wanted to find a coach, and Coach Hagmann’s reply: “Ah, they all say they want to run!”

But Coach Hagmann agreed to meet the aspiring athlete, and says he was immediately impressed.

The pair started quietly working together, and in July 2022, as international events resumed after the Covid years, the athletics world was stunned when a virtually unknown athlete won the 5000m at the prestigious Diamond League meeting in Stockholm in a world class time, defeating a confirmed star like Uganda’s Jacob Kiplimo. It was Dominic’s first race outside Switzerland, and he made sure to make the best of the opportunity.

More Diamond League races followed, and at the Finals in Zürich in early September Lobalu very nearly repeated the exploit, but the 5000m race was held as a city event, in the beautiful Sechseläutenplatz on a 560m track, and Dominic said he became confused in counting laps due to the unusual distance and had to be content with second place.

Lobalu continued to work hard and to compete, but seemed stuck in limbo as he could no longer represent the Athlete Refugee Team, having defected from the group, and obtaining Swiss citizenship seemed a lengthy process.

However, things moved faster than expected, and last September, Swiss Athletics announced that Dominic would be able to represent Switzerland from 9 April 2024. Last month, the Nationality Review Panel of World Athletics announced it had approved Dominic Lobalu’s application to compete for Switzerland in international championships as of 10 May, meaning he would be able to realise his dream of competing at both the European Championships in Rome and the Olympic Games in Paris.

On Friday evening Dominic rewarded his new country’s faith in him with a bronze medal at the Europeans, behind Norway’s mega-star Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Britain’s George Mills.

A beaming Lobalu did not hide his joy in the mixed zone after the race, declaring, “I’m so happy to have the nationality, so happy for the race and to win the first medal in my life. Now I see my future is bright so I’m really happy for it.”

His unwavering determination has paid off, and the future indeed looks bright for Domnic Lokinyomo Lobalu, the first athlete refugee to medal at a major championship.