In a bid to show the spirit of sports to those people who have been displaced by violence, persecution, and war in their countries, the International Olympic Committee, for the first time, extended compassionate and warm arms to the refugee team; by including them among the participating teams for the Rio Olympic Games which officially commenced on Friday August 5 with the opening ceremony.
In March 2016 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach declared that the IOC would choose five to ten refugees to compete at the Rio Olympics, in the context of the “worldwide refugee crisis”, of which the European migrant crisis is a prominent part. The athletes are expected to compete under the Olympic Flag. Initially, they were labeled “Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes”, with the IOC country code ROA, but this was updated to Refugee Olympic Team with the country code ROT.
The Refugee Olympic Team was greeted with great cheers and admiration from the crowd as they marched gorgeously to the Maracanã Stadium. They will be represented by ten athletes hailing from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo and were chosen from 43 promising candidates. The athletes like other teams, have coaches and support staff to assist them during the Games. Nomination criteria included sporting level, official refugee status verified by the United Nations, personal situation and background.
According to the United Nations, there are 21 million refugees in the world today and nearly 5 million of them came from Syria alone. While many of them have stayed within their home countries as internally displaced people, nearly 20 million did not: they live as refugees (officially designated by the United Nations) or as asylum seekers (people seeking recognition from the UN or from another government).
It shouldn’t be surprising that sports plays a different role in the lives of the refugee Olympians, because they’re refugees in different ways. Some fled with family, some abandoned family, and some left after their families were killed. The diaspora refugees (after dangerous and uncertain journeys) have found new homes in new countries; for instance, the South Sudanese refugees had spent years in one of the largest camps in the world.
They will join thousands of athletes who will be gunning for medals at the different sporting events of the Olympic Games; and who says they can’t win the gold medal considering the fact that they have gone through rigorous training thanks to the support fund of the IOC. It should also be noted that many of them that will be competing at the Olympic Games were already competing at the international level before they fled home; all of them have experience in international athletics.
Interestingly, the youngest athlete among the Refugee Olympic team is 18-year-old Yusra Mardini who fled the war in Syria and competed for a medal in the swimming event (100-meter butterfly) on Saturday, August 6, but placed 41st, which did not qualify her to the next round of competition, however she still has a chance to win a medal in the 100-meter freestyle.
Mardini told Dailymail.co.uk how she escaped her war-torn country through a dinghy that carried 20 asylum seekers, including her and her sister Sarah, on their way from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos. Mardini, who represented Syria at the short-course World Championships in Turkey in 2012, fled the conflict in her home country in August 2015. Mardini’s home was destroyed in the Syrian Civil War. The sisters and 18 other refugees aimed to enter Greece by boat, but the boat was meant to hold only six to seven people. According the The Independent U.K. “she and her sister are responsible for helping to save the lives of 20 people, including their own, after jumping off their sinking dinghy into the Aegean Sea and pushing their boat to land”. Both sisters pushed the boat over three hours before it reached the Greek island of Lesvos.
She told the Dailymail: “It was awful in the beginning but we made it to shore after several hours. We still are humans. We are not only refugees; we are like everyone in the world,” Mardini said.
Some of the refugee Olympians, like Mabika and Misenga from the Congo, told Vox.com that keeping up their sport has helped them endure dark times throughout their lives. Most of the South Sudanese runners, on the other hand, didn’t see themselves as athletes before they were asked to train with Tegla Loroupe a long distance Kenyan runner who was part of the training squad for the refugees. Many were so inexperienced that they didn’t know how to stretch before a run, or even how to move their arms.
IOC President, Thomas Bach told Olympic.org that the brain behind the composition of the Refugee Olympic Team was to show love and support to them through sports.
“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem. We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the world. The Olympic anthem will be played in their honor and the Olympic flag will lead them into the Olympic Stadium. This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and our enrichment to society. These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”
Going by this extraordinary love being shown to the refugees by the IOC, it is therefore paramount to understand that every individual or group of people in society has a role to play in order to bring a smile to the faces of the displaced not just through sports but also through other positive means.
Some of the athletes that will feature at the Games are:
Rami Anis (M): Country of origin – Syria; host NOC – Belgium; sport – swimming,
Yiech Pur Biel (M): Country of origin – South Sudan; host NOC – Kenya; sport – athletics, 800m
James Nyang Chiengjiek (M): Country of origin – South Sudan; host NOC – Kenya; sport – athletics, 400m
Yonas Kinde (M): Country of origin – Ethiopia; host NOC – Luxembourg; sport – athletics, marathon
Anjelina Nada Lohalith (F): Country of origin – South Sudan; host NOC – Kenya; sport – athletics, 1500m
Rose Nathike Lokonyen (F): Country of origin – South Sudan; host NOC – Kenya; sport – athletics, 800m
Paulo Amotun Lokoro (M): Country of origin – South Sudan; host NOC – Kenya; sport – athletics, 1500m
Yolande Bukasa Mabika (F): Country of origin – Democratic Republic of the Congo; host NOC – Brazil; sport – judo, -70kg
Yusra Mardini (F): Country of origin – Syria; host NOC – Germany; sport – swimming
Popole Misenga (M): Country of origin – Democratic Republic of the Congo; host NOC – Brazil; sport – judo, -90kg