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Olympics Allows Refugees to Compete on Their Own Team

Ten refugee-athletes from Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia and the Republic of Congo will compete at the Rio Olympics

Paul Amotun Lokoro and Anjelina Nadai Lohalith of South Sudan, part of the Olympic's first team of refugees (IOC)
smithsonian.com

When the parade of nations enters Maracanã Stadium later this summer for the opening ceremonies of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, there will be one extra flag. Ten refugees from around the world will compete as a team for the first time under the Olympic banner.

International Olympic Committee chairman Thomas Bach announced the formation of the refugee team last Friday. “It is a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society,” he said in a statement. “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.”

But the athletes aren’t just symbolic; they have the athletic chops to compete with the best of the best. Five of the athletes, all track and field competitors, come from South Sudan. Two are Syrian swimmers living in Europe, two are judo competitors from the Democratic Republic of Congo residing in Brazil and one is an Ethiopian marathoner from a refugee camp in Kenya.

According to Barbie Latza Nadeau at the Daily Beast, the team members were chosen from a short list of 43 refugee-athletes. All ten had to qualify under the standards set for all Olympic athletes. “There were no shortcuts,” an IOC spokesperson tells Nadeau. “Each Refugee Olympic Team member earned the position.”

For most of the athletes, just getting to the Olympics is a gold medal performance. As Lulu Garcia-Navarro writes at NPR, Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika were members of the Republic of Congo’s judo team when they traveled to Brazil for the Judo World Championships in 2013. Their coach stole the team’s money and documents and left his team stranded.

The two decided to stay in Brazil instead of going back to the violence and instability of their home country, where many of their friends and family members had been killed. But with no money—not to mention no understanding of Portuguese—it has been difficult making a living and continuing on with the sport they love.

Nadeau tells the story of Syrian swimmer named Yusra Mardini, who paid a trafficker to help her and 20 other passengers reach the Greek island of Lesbos in 2015 to flee the violence in her home country. An hour into the trip, the rubber raft they were on began sinking. Yusra and her sister Sarah, another swimming champ, jumped in the water and pulled the raft for four hours until the group safely reached land. 

“I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned at sea because I am a swimmer,” Mardini said at a press conference. She eventually made it to Germany where she was granted asylum.  

Once in Berlin, Philip Oltermann at the Guardian reports Mardini was quickly accepted to an elite training club and trains twice a day at a special sports school. Because of her refugee status, she did not qualify for Germany’s Olympic team and Syria will likely not field a national team this year, and probably wouldn’t accept refugees even if it did. The new team gives Mardini a chance to show her stuff despite her circumstances.

“I want to make all the refugees proud of me,” she tells Oltermann. “It would show that even if we had a tough journey, we can achieve something.”

The refugee team will march into the stadium ahead of the Brazil delegation along with 15 coaches and trainers.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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