It took teenager Kone Yossodjo more than a year to run from poverty and despair in west Africa. He is still running these days, just a lot quicker. Despite never having competed in track events until he was 15, the 19-year-old Ivorian has been winning middle-distance races all over Spain.
He competed in 11 races during 2018-19, winning five – and was crowned Andalusia’s 5,000m champion. Next year’s Tokyo Olympics will be too early for him, but Paris 2024 remains an aspiration.
“He’s young, but he’s distinct and the fastest I’ve seen in 35 years,” says Paco Valle, his coach.
“I had faith my running would save me,” says a smiling Yossodjo in Seville’s María Luisa Park, as he recounts his rise from destitution. “I want to show the people of Spain that migrants can add to the society.”
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Yossodjo was 14 when he left Ivory Coast after his father died and his mother could not care for him and his four siblings. He walked, hid in forests and foraged food from trees and garbage dumps, before eventually making it to Morocco in November 2014.
He waited there for an opportunity to cross the Mediterranean, until a smuggler took pity on him and charged him half the €3,000 price to leave.
When he reached Spain in 2016, he was immediately detained and after 10 days was sent to a centre for minors in Seville.
Yossodjo had always loved running as a child, so when a friend of his social worker introduced him to a local athletics club, he did not look back. Within a year he had finished second in Spain’s national youth 3,000m final.
“It was a major shock to go from jail to racing in the championships in just one year,” says Yossodjo.
Of course, he still has a way to go to become an Olympian: his fastest time for 5,000m is a little over 15 minutes, meaning he would need to shave an improbable two minutes off that to qualify for Paris. The 1,500m might be more realistic, but he would still need to trim his record of four minutes by about 30 seconds.
But that might not be his biggest problem. His status remains unsettled, so he is not qualified to run for Spain.
An eclectic group of supporters including his coach, volunteers and a not-for-profit organisation have gathered around Yossodjo to help him with any needs. During the day he studies Spanish, and at night works as an orderly at a nursing home. He has been able to obtain a residency card, which allows him to live and work. Under Raindrops, a scheme fostered by the not-for-profit Diálogos Para Construir, Yossodjo speaks at youth homes, for social work programmes, and at public schools to tell his story and encourage other migrant youths to take up athletics.
Every afternoon he trains for a couple of hours. If he can meet the 1,500m time, his coach says, Spain will also grant him citizenship to compete – and although the pressure is intense, Yossodjo understands he is running for his future.
“I will never forget my country, or that I am African, but my future is in Spain,” he says.
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