From Fencing in a Hijab to Swimming for Refugees, These 5 Olympians Inspire Us

Meet the athletes representing more than their countries’ flags at this year’s Olympic Games.

With each new Olympic Games comes new discussion and debate over not just the top competitors, but also the issues of our time. The 2016 Rio Olympics have been no different. Race, gender, immigration, and poverty have been at the forefront of conversations around these games, and some competitors have taken the discourse out of the pundit circle and into the arena. Here are five of the many inspirational athletes who are representing more than their countries’ flags this August.

Simone Manuel

On August 11, Manuel, 20, became the first Black female to win gold for the United States at an Olympic individual swimming event. Along with her win for the 100-meter freestyle, she takes home a silver for the 50-meter freestyle, and a gold and silver for the 4x100-meter medley relay and the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, respectively, in her first Olympic competition.

Manuel’s wins carry certain symbolic weight.

The swimming pool has historically been a site of racial segregation in the United States, and Manuel’s wins carry certain symbolic weight.

“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory,” she said of her gold medal to USA Today.

Manuel’s decision to evoke race is a brave one. In July five WNBA players and their teams were fined (though these were later rescinded) for wearing plain black warmup shirts with the hashtags “#BlackLivesMatter” and “#Dallas5,” referring to the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the five officers killed at a peaceful protest in Dallas that month. 

“This medal is not just for me,” Manuel said in her interview with NBC.

Ibtihaj Muhammad

“A lot of people don’t believe that Muslim women have voices or that we participate in sport,” Muhammad said in an interview with USA Today. “I want to break cultural norms.”

Muhammad, a 30-year-old from New Jersey and graduate of Duke University, is the first American to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympic Games. In her first Olympics competition, she has not only brought much attention to the oft-forgotten sport of fencing but also won a bronze medal in a team competition. She speaks candidly about her place on the team as a Muslim in a country dealing with Islamophobia.

“I want to break cultural norms.”

“It’s not just any team, it’s the United States,” Muhammad said in the same interview. “It’s in light of what’s going on in our country, the political fuss we hear about, all these things I feel like kind of circle back to my presence on Team USA and just challenging those misconceptions people have about who the Muslim woman is.”

Speaking up about being a Muslim—and a Muslim woman—in America hasn’t been easy for Muhammad. She has said that she often fears for her safety in the U.S., and has received some backlash and accusations of being anti-American and anti-Semitic for her critiques of Israel. But Muhammad seems to know who she is and what she represents.

Julius Yego

A 27-year-old from rural Kenya, Yego achieved fame as a javelin thrower despite not having a coach and being trained with YouTube videos. A winner of the African Championships in Athletics in 2014 and the World Championships in 2015, he finished 12th in the 2012 Olympics and will compete in Rio on August 17.

His training regimen has not been a standard one. Though Yego set javelin records at school in his youth, he never had enough money to train seriously, which held him back from attending the World Junior Championships even after qualifying. In 2009, Yego started watching YouTube videos of the world’s top javelin throwers and used them to create his own training schedule. By 2011, he became Kenya’s first competitor to win a field event title in the All-Africa Games.

Yego started watching YouTube videos of the world’s top javelin throwers. 

“I think somewhere in my blood is written javelin,” he told CNN.

While Yego’s story is unique, other athletes of the Rio Olympics have surmounted similar odds, rising out of poverty to compete on the world stage. The Fiji men’s rugby team—which learned to play the game with makeshift balls made with plastic bottles, shirts, and shoes—is favored to win gold this month. It would be the country’s first-ever Olympic medal. And Brazil’s judo competitor Rafaela Silva won gold in her weight category despite facing overwhelming racism and violence in one of Rio’s toughest neighborhoods.

Yusra Mardini

Thanks to everyone who's supporting me it means a lot to me❤️ #olympics #teamvisa

A photo posted by Yusra Mardini (@mardiniysra) on Aug 10, 2016 at 7:34pm PDT

Mardini is an 18-year-old swimmer from Syria who is one of 10 members of the Refugee Olympic Athletes Team competing this year without a country. Though she has not won a medal for the 100-meter freestyle or butterfly races, her story is what stands her apart from other competitors.

“I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them.”

Mardini grew up training in Damascus before fleeing with her sister from the increasing danger in the city. After traveling through Lebanon, they left Turkey in an overcrowded boat en route to Greece. The boat’s engine failed, and Mardini, along with her sister and the only two other people in the boat who knew how to swim, pushed the dinghy back to shore rather than risking capsizing in the open sea. The four swam the boat through cold water for three and a half hours before finally reaching Lesbos island and saving the lives of 20 people.

“I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go,” said Mardini, who now lives in Berlin and attends school when not training in the pool. She and the other athletes of the refugee team are bringing the refugee crisis to the world stage.

Caster Semenya

On August 17, Semenya will return to the track for the 800-meter race. Born in rural South Africa, Semenya dominated junior championship races in 2008 and 2009 until she was accused of not being anatomically female. The allegations led to the investigation and eventual gender testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF).

A then-18-year-old, who had grown up identifying as a woman and did not know of intersex conditions, Semenya seemed to slow down on the track for a few years and disappeared from public view. She was excluded from various races until she agreed to undergo hormone treatment.

“These kinds of people should not run with us,” Italy’s Elisa Cusma told Italian journalists after finishing sixth place against Semenya in the 2009 World Championships. “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

Semenya has become the face for conversation about the complexities of gender and sport.

Semenya’s case is less unique than it may seem. In June, The New York Times Magazine exposed the historical practice of gender testing, highlighting the story of Indian runner Dutee Chand, who recently appealed an IAAF competition ban placed on her due to her high levels of testosterone. For the Rio Olympics, bans against alleged intersex athletes are on hold after the Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended them last summer. Bans will be permanently abolished in the next year unless the IAAF can make a valid case for them. While Chand competed at a time well below her personal best, disqualifying her from advancement in the 100-meter race, Semenya will race as a clear favorite to win in the 800.

Though unintentionally, 25-year-old Semenya has become the face for conversation about the complexities of gender and sport. “God made me the way I am and I accept myself. I am who I am and I’m proud of myself,” she told South African You Magazine.