More than medals

The first Refugee Olympic Team is about to give hope to millions across the world.

This year’s Olympics will be one of the most special ones yet.  As citizens around the world anticipate the upcoming Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and as their teams prepare for the various competitions taking place in August, a new team has just joined the game.

In early June 2016, the International Olympic Commission (IOC) announced the names of the first Refugee Olympic Team. It will consist of two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and six runners from Ethiopia and South Sudan. As the Refugee Team, they will not be representing the countries of their birth, heritage or citizenship, and they will also not carry their home flags when they walk into the Maracanã Stadium on 5 August. Instead, they will march under the Olympic flag – entering the stadium during the Opening Ceremony even before host country Brazil – and the Olympic anthem will be played to honour them. Additionally, “to ensure that they are able to compete at the highest level against the other national delegations, they will be accompanied by an entourage of coaches, medical staff and other team officials”, and will live in the Olympic village with all the other teams.

All 10 athletes were forced to flee their home countries due to violence and persecution, and are now living in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Kenya and Brazil. They currently train with the support of the relevant National Olympic Committee (NOC) or the Olympic Solidarity fund and are thrilled to have been given this opportunity, especially as the first refugee team ever.

One of the young athletes is Popole Misenga, a 24-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). When he was only 9 years old he lost his mother to the war that was raging in the country, and he subsequently had to flee his hometown by himself. Growing up in a centre for displaced children in Kinshasa, he discovered judo, which provided him with much stability and direction in his life. Dedicating his life to the sport, he was able to join the national team. However, he has been living in Rio de Janeiro since 2013, when he fled the team during championships there and sought asylum in Brazil. When asked what it means to him to participate in the Olympics, Popole says “I want to be part of the Refugee Olympic Athletes team to keep dreaming, to give hope to all refugees and take sadness out of them. I want to show that refugees can do important things”.

Joining him in Rio is Yiech Pur Biel from South Sudan, age 21, who fled his country on his own 11 years ago and then lived in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya for 10 years. Despite the difficult conditions in the camp – no gym, no proper shoes, and heat – Yiech relentlessly practiced running and received a sense of belonging from it. He only started running competitively just over a year ago, and will compete in the Olympics’ 800m. Together with the other four runners from South Sudan, he trains under Kenyan Olympian and world champion marathon runner Tegla Loroupe (who is also the entire team’s chef de mission) in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Yiech is aware of the opportunity he has been given: “Even if I don’t get gold or silver, I will show the world that, as a refugee, you can do something,” he said.

The other team members are Rami Anis (Syria), Yusra Mardini (Syria), Paulo Amotun Lokoro (South Sudan), Yonas Kinde (Ethiopia), James Nyang Chiengjiek (South Sudan), Anjelina Nadai Lohalith (South Sudan), Rose Nathike Lokonyen (South Sudan) and Yolande Bukasa Mabika (DRC). They all share a story of conflict and unrest in their lives, of flight, of refuge and hope in a new country. Making the selection for the team was not taken lightly, as 43 athletes had applied for a spot in the team. “The athletes were named after a long selection process conducted by the IOC in collaboration with the UNHCR and with National Olympic Committees of countries which have large refugee populations”.

The idea of having refugees represented at the Olympic Games is a product of the long-standing partnership between the IOC and the UNHCR. In the last 20 years, this cooperation has helped raise awareness of the importance of sports in development, especially for refugee youths. Clearly, it is thus about more than just the sports competition. At a Geneva Olympic Event in April of this year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rightly noted “Let us all be on the team of refugees until there is no need for a refugee team at all.”

In light of the many discussions that have taken place around the world concerning refugees, and also regarding the games in Rio, this news represents a powerful and important signal. As Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee said: “We want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world”. With over 65 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, over 21 million of them refugees, hope may be as essential as food and shelter. It furthermore shows respect, inclusion and conveys the message that the world should not forget that the term “refugees” is just a label.

The Refugee Olympic Team is made up of ambitious and proud young athletes – ready to go for gold in just a few weeks.

Human Rights
Sarah Bialek

Sarah graduated from Maastricht University’s Graduate School of Governance/UNU Merit with a M.Sc. in Public Policy and Human Development, specialising in Trade and Development Law. After working at the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) External Relations department in Geneva she now lives in London and works in the Higher Education sector. She is passionate about International Relations and Development, as well as Trade Law and (forced) Migration.
    One Comment
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    Roger Hawcroft
    9 July 2016 at 1:46 pm
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    On the surface, it is indeed positive that a Refugee Team will compete at the Olympics. In reality, it is probably exactly the opposite. Every time the Olympics is held, thousands, tens of thousands and possibly even hundreds of thousands of people are displaced, lose homes, suffer massive disruption to their lives, suffer having to pay for facilities that in many cases will stand empty or rot once the Games are over. I accept that athletes see the Olympics as the pinnacle of competition and performance but that is a somewhat insular view and conveniently dismisses the true human cost or these events. The entry of a Refugee Team is *not* a positive move if one takes even a cursory look at its implications. What it does is add to an already unhealthy matter of fact attitude to the fact that our world is creating an ever increasing number of refugees. I understand why some people will see this as a positive but its result is to embed the notion of the collective of refugees as equivalent to a nation. It ignores the appalling conditions in which most refugees find themselves and effectively legitimises their plight as acceptable. It is not. It would be far better if all athletes involved were to boycott the Olympics until World governments put an end to their actions that are responsible for the existence of refugees.

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