Refugee Olympic Team Stands Out as a Highlight of Rio

by August 22, 2016
filed under Activism
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Members of the Olympic Refugee Team in front of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph- Kai Pfaffenbach:Reuters

Members of the Olympic Refugee Team in front of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

The 2016 Summer Olympics wrapped up last night with closing ceremonies, following an eventful two weeks. The world has witnessed many highs in Rio, including Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky obliterating world records with confidence, Simone Manuel making history in the pool as the first African-American to win gold in an individual swimming event, and American Abbey D’Agostino and New Zealander Nikki Hamblin helping one another to finish their races in a true demonstration of good sportsmanship.

The International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has called the Rio Games “iconic,” citing the incredible level of competition between athletes and the spirit of the Olympians this summer.

“We had athletes from Ukraine and Russia hugging each other and congratulating each other; we have seen athletes from North and South Korea taking selfies together,” he said. “We have seen (runners) Nikki Hamblin (of New Zealand) and Abbey D’Agostino (of the US) falling and helping each other to the finish of the race. And the quote of the American runner when she helped up her competitor, to say ‘Get up, we have to finish, this is the Olympic Games.’ I think you cannot better describe Olympic spirit and fair play than with this gesture and these words.”

Of course, the Rio Games hasn’t brought out the best in everyone. Also making headlines during the games were the unorthodox boos from Olympic audiences, Hope Solo’s sore loser attitude and comments, and of course, Ryan Lochte’s false claims that he and some teammates were mugged at a gas station — a scandal that eclipsed news of athletic events during the last few days of the games.

But a true highlight for the 2016 Summer Olympics, and something that will hopefully stand out in minds all around the world, was the inclusion of a Refugee Olympic Team. This truly groundbreaking move by the International Olympic Committee sparked a much-needed global conversation.

“They were treated like rock stars. This is really Olympic solidarity at its best,” IOC President Bach said. He added that the committee would “continue to support the refugee athletes and help them integrate into their new homes after the Games,” according to Olympic.org.

The Refugee Olympic Team was assembled by the IOC and included athletes from Ethiopia, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. The small 10-member team, meant to represent over 65-million displaced people worldwide, received a standing ovation two weeks ago at opening ceremonies when they marched in second to last, right before the Brazilians.

The team was formed when the IOC created a $2 million (USD) fund to support the refugees in their training and getting to the games. Countries around the world identified displaced athletes living in their countries who might be able to compete. Forty-three contenders were then selected, and of those 43, 10 officially made the team.

Yusra Mardini, an 18-year-old Syrian swimmer living in Berlin, was publicly identified as a contender early in the process, and she did indeed win a spot to compete in the Olympics.

Last year, Yusra and her family boarded a dingy leaving Turkey, but when the dingy full of about 20 people began to sink, Yusra and her sister, along with two others, dove into the Aegean Sea and kicked the dingy for three hours to the Greek island, Lesbos.

“I just said to myself that I’m a swimmer and I have to swim now,” Yusra said to Teen Vogue.

Eventually, Yusra made her way to Berlin, where she met her coach, Sven Spannerkrebs, and began training for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But, the creation of the refugee team allowed her to compete earlier than planned. You may recognize Yusra’s incredible story from the Visa commercial that aired during the Olympics and expressed support for all refugee athletes.

Another athlete selected for the Refugee Olympic Team was Rose Nathike Lokonyen. While Yusra’s journey reminds us of so many fleeing Syria, Rose’s story represents those displaced by civil war in Sudan. Rose, age 23, has lived in a refugee camp in Kenya, along with 180,000 others, since she was only 10 years old. She began running in her camp during high school and famously had to run without shoes until only one year ago.

“It was just a competition, we competed among the refugees. Some of us were running without shoes, like me, I was running barefoot. We ran 10 kilometers and I became the number two,” Rose recalls of her early days running.

Although the Refugee Olympic Team concluded the Rio games without any medals, the impact they have made by competing is far more valuable than gold. The 10 refugee team members have come together from across the globe, despite all odds, to show everyone the true meaning of resilience and teamwork. By sharing their individual stories, they have humanized a crisis which, until now, had been largely represented only by mind-boggling statistics.

To learn more about the worldwide refugee crisis, visit the United Nations Refugee Agency website. Let’s keep the refugee crisis in the spotlight so we can continue to work toward making a difference.


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