In August of 2015, Yusra Mardini and her sister, Sarah, fled Syria after their home was destroyed in the country’s civil war. The sisters traveled on land through Lebanon and Turkey, eventually boarding a boat with 18 other refugees. When that boat’s motor failed in the Aegean Sea, Mardini, her sister, and another woman jumped out and pushed the boat for three hours to the island of Lesbos.
“These things are not about sports only but about longing for freedom.”
Mardini would later tell a press conference in Berlin that “it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea.” Many refugees do drown attempting to reach safety in Europe—2,500 died this year alone—but that is not what Mardini meant.
Mardini is a competitive swimmer, and she is one of 10 athletes selected this week to compete on a refugee Olympic team at the 2016 Rio Olympics. For a group of people stripped of their homes and citizenship, it’s an effort to restore an element of their humanity: sports.
Prior to this year’s games, Mardini and her fellow teammates would not have been eligible to participate on any Olympic team. Yet that’s a violation of the Olympic Charter, which considers playing sports a human right. “Every individual,” the Charter reads, “must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind.”
This is a noble value, but it raises a fundamental problem: the Olympics hold national competitions. While everyone may have a right to practice sport, not every athlete has a nation to call home. By creating the refugee Olympic team, the International Olympic Committee hopes to rectify that dilemma.
The team is composed of 10 athletes, all verified by the United Nations as holding refugee status. In addition to Mardini, there is another swimmer who left Syria, Rami Anis; two judoka from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Popole Misenga and Yolande Bukasa Mabika; marathoner Yonas Kinde from Ethiopa; and five runners formerly of South Sudan, James Nyang Chiengjiek, Yiech Pur Biel, Paulo Amotun Lokoro, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, and Anjelina Nada Lohalith.
South Sudanese refugee Anjelina Nadai Lohalith will compete in the 1500-meter run on the refugee Olympic team in Rio. Photo courtesy of International Olympic Committee.
Team Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA) was created by the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee in response to the global refugee crisis resulting from nearly 20 million refugees, as of 2014. Meaning the Earth now has about 1 million more refugees than there are Romanians or Syrians. In 2012, Romania sent 103 athletes to the summer Games.
While everyone may have a right to practice sport, not every athlete has a nation to call home.
“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,” said IOC President Thomas Bach, when he announced the final team selection. “It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.” The refugee team is funded by the Olympic Solidarity Programme, created to assist those National Committees in need of organizational resources and training support. The Solidarity Programme already supports more than 1,700 athletes from developing countries, in addition to the refugee team.
When the refugee team makes its entrance at the Opening Ceremony, it will be the first time a team will march at the Olympics representing no nation. They will march to the Olympic Anthem; they will carry the Olympic flag.
While ROA will be the first organized team to represent nationless peoples at the Games, the athletes will not be the first to participate in the Olympics without being on a national team. According to Bill Mallon, Olympic Historian and founding member of the International Society of Olympic Historians, individuals have competed in the past, usually due to war or political sanctions in their countries. The first instance was in 1992, when Yugoslav athletes, whose team was banned due to sanctions associated with the Balkan war, were allowed to compete as “Independent Olympic Athletes.”
Allowing 10 refugees to compete does not mean every human population suddenly has access to the Games. There are still groups, like Tibetans, who remain in political situations that exclude them from bringing a team to the Olympics. Because of China’s occupation of Tibet, Tibetan athletes must compete under the Chinese flag, if at all. But with the creation of a refugee team, it is possible to imagine a more inclusive future for the Games. Tenzing Sherap, Program Manager at the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, praised the IOC for creating a space for refugees, and for recognizing that “these things are not about sports only but about longing for freedom.”
Most refugee stories in the media focus on hardship and tragedy: dangerous mass movements, dilapidated tent cities, and refugee camps. “These are important pictures but they depersonalize the refugee story,” said Bill Canny, Executive Director of Migration and Refugee Services for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The more that [the] Olympics can personalize, tell a personal story about a refugee and his or her family, I think it makes it more real for us to see how in fact these people differ very little from us if at all.”
“These people differ very little from us if at all.”
Given the Olympic-sized audiences Rio will bring, the stories of the refugee athletes will provide a new, powerful opportunity for those working to ameliorate the refugee crisis. The London Summer Olympics in 2012 was the most watched TV program in U.S. history. Second on that list is the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008. Worldwide, the Olympics measures its viewers in billions.
This is important at a time when global public perceptions of refugees are low, the United Nations reports. In the United States, refugees have been met with disdainful public opinion, according to PEW Research. Attitudes toward immigrants are often divided along party lines, with 59 percent of citizens saying immigrants strengthen the country and 33 percent calling them a burden.
Yet the stories of refugee athletes are filled with adversity and deserve to be heard. Misenga and Mabika, the judoka from Congo, defected from their homeland when they applied for asylum during a 2013 Judo Championship tournament in Rio. Misenga fled after his mother was killed and his brother disappeared. “I’ve seen too much war, too much death,” he says. Mabika’s story is similar; her family was lost in Congolese conflict. Both turned to Judo as a way out. “Judo is my life. It helped me escape war, to take another path,” says Mabika.
Judo athlete Popole Misenga a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo now resides in Brazil as he trains for this summers Olympics. Photo courtesy of International Olympic Committee.
“The more that people understand what a refugee is and what a refugee has gone through,” said Canny, “I think that increasingly people in this country will welcome them, and help them start new lives in the United States.”
In the meantime, the athletes will train in the nations where they have sought refuge. The South Sudanese runners are training in Nairobi, Kenya, with two-time New York City Marathon winner Tegla Loroupe. Loroupe, a three-time Olympian will also serve as the team manager for the Refugee Team. “When I look at them, when any of us look at them, we’re reminded that it isn’t by choice that people become refugees,” she says. “It could be any of us.”
“It isn’t by choice that people become refugees,” she says. “It could be any of us.”
Yusra Mardini practices with the support of the German National Olympic Committee (NOC). Michael Shirp, deputy head of media for the German NOC, says that Germany is proud to support Yusra and her effort to compete at the Olympics. He says she and her sister “represent an impressive example” of the refugee population in Germany, which grew by more than 1 million in the past 15 months. Because refugees give up their homes and suffer through perilous journeys, Shirp says, they offer inspiration to Germans.
That inspiration and talent is evident from the Mardinis’ arduous trip to Europe. At a press conference in Berlin in February, Mardini recognized the inspirational nature of her personal story. “The problem [in Syria] was the reason I am here and why I am stronger and I want to reach my goals,” Mardini said. “I want to inspire everyone that everyone can do what they believe in their hearts.”
A global audience will hear all the stories of the refugee Olympic team this summer. And in doing so, a billion souls will get to watch the nationless compete as equals, as the Olympics lives up to one more aspect of its optimistic charter.