By Diane Taylor…
Jimmy Thoronka is back in training while he waits to see if the Home Office will grant him leave to remain so that he can take up his studies.
Sierra Leone’s top 100-metre sprinter, Jimmy Thoronka, who ended up emaciated and sleeping rough in the UK after absconding from last year’s Commonwealth games, has been offered a sports scholarship in Britain.
Thoronka, 21, received the offer to boost his athletics career from the University of East London (UEL), which has been impressed by his potential. The offer is contingent on obtaining the Home Office’s permission to stay in the country.
“I am so happy to have received this offer,” said Thoronka, whose application for leave to remain is ongoing. “They invited me to visit and have a look at all the athletics and academic facilities. It was fantastic. If I am able to study and train there, it will be my dream.”
He received a flood of offers to help him after the Guardian revealed in March this year that he was sleeping rough in a south London park. His country’s delegation to the games had no idea what had happened to him and his family feared he was dead when he didn’t return home at the end of the competition.
Thoronka, like several of his teammates, feared returning home because of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. He was given the news during the games that his uncle had died, probably of the virus.
The loss of so many members of his immediate family was particularly devastating, because he had lost his biological parents during his country’s 1991 to 2002 civil war. Kargbo adopted him at the age of five from a refugee camp. He was overjoyed when he was reunited by phone with the one surviving member of his adopted family, his sister Musu Senesie.
Before he vanished, Thoronka was running the 100-metres in 10.58 seconds. He was the top sprinter in his country and won the Sports Writers of Sierra Leone award for best male athlete in 2013.
Following the media coverage of his plight, a change.org petition was set up to support him and was signed by more than 75,000 people. A funding page was also set up,which to date has raised more than £30,000. The money has been placed in a trust fund to help Thoronka further his athletics career.
The offer from UEL was also a result of the publicity his story received. The university is developing a reputation as a centre of sporting excellence and currently counts the top sprinter Adam Gemili as one of its students.
The president of the Sierra Leone Athletics Association, Abdul Karim Sesay, said he believed Thoronka had the potential to become one of the world’s top 100-metre sprinters with the right training and nutrition. “He is a brilliant sprinter, a natural athlete and extremely fast,” he said. UEL’s deputy vice-chancellor, Dusty Amroliwala, said the university wanted to give Thoronka a chance to achieve his sporting potential while pursuing a course of academic study.
Thoronka said that when he was sleeping rough, washing in public toilets and begging for a pound here and there to buy chips, he had lost all hope.
“I didn’t think I had any future either in the UK or back in Sierra Leone. I am very sad to have lost so many members of my adopted family and spend a lot of time thinking about them. If I do succeed in going to university here I just wish my adopted mother could see me, I know she would be very proud.”
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Senesi said she was overjoyed when she found out that her adoptive brother was still alive. “When Jimmy didn’t come home after the Commonwealth games in August last year we knew something bad had happened to him and thought he was dead,” she said.
At the end of October, Kargbo contracted Ebola. She worked as a nurse in the police hospital in Freetown and contracted the virus while caring for an infected patient.
“When Ebola started I was very worried for my mum and begged her to leave her job as a nurse, but she said this was her only job and she had to continue,” said Senesie.
“She died at the end of October. The others in the family were put into quarantine but they died too. I escaped Ebola because I was at the police training school at the time, which is far away from where the rest of the family were staying.
“I thank God that my life was saved. If Jimmy had come home after the games he probably would have died too. I am so happy that my brother is alive. We speak on the phone and he tries to help me as much as he can.”
Thoronka’s fortunes changed following the media publicity, but things have not always been plain sailing. The day the Guardian broke the story, police arrested him for running down a street. He was rushing to retrieve his bag, which he had left in Burgess park in south London. He was searched for drugs and stolen property, but nothing was found and police had no intelligence to link him to any crime.
Critics say he was stopped simply because he was black and running fast. A Metropolitan police spokesman later apologised for not carrying out the stop and search correctly, because Thoronka had not been given the required documentation explaining why he had been stopped.
“The notice was not given to the individual. We apologise for the error,” the spokesman said.
He also received an apology from the BBC after they ran an interview with the Sierra Leone athletics official Joseph Nyande, who incorrectly claimed that he was lying about Kargbo’s death and had two parents alive and well. The BBC accepted that there was documentary evidence that proved his adoptive mother had died of Ebola.
In a statement the BBC said: “We apologise to Jimmy for any hurt or embarrassment our broadcast caused.”
Along with the donations, Thoronka was given free accommodation in north London for several months courtesy of the property company The Collective. He also receives support from the entrepreneur Emma Sinclair, the co-founder of the software company EnterpriseJungle.
Thoronka is hoping to find permanent accommodation in London and is training hard while he waits for a decision from the Home Office about whether or not he will be able to stay in the UK and take up the course of study that has been offered to him.
“I did overstay my visa after the Commonwealth games, because I was scared of Ebola back home,” he said. “If I had gone back to my family after the games I might not be alive today.”
When the Guardian first interviewed, him he was wearing a white plastic wristband bearing the Olympic logo and the words London 2012. He never takes the wristband off.
“My dream is to make it to the Olympics,” he says. “When I left Sierra Leone for the Commonwealth games I told my mother I would bring back a gold medal for her. I didn’t win anything in Glasgow, but I am determined to win medals in the future. I hope that if I train hard enough I will make it.”