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Symbol Of Hope: The refugee athletes hoping to make the Rio Olympics

With its team of Refugee Olympic Athletes set to compete at Rio, the IOC is showing how sport can be a powerful tool for good.

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management 02 May 2016 issue 119
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Competing at the Olympics will carry powerful symbolism for refugees
Competing at the Olympics will carry powerful symbolism for refugees

All eyes will be on the penultimate team entering the stadium at the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympic Games. Refugees will be hitting the headlines again, but this time for positive reasons: reflecting the athletes’ verve to continue with their sporting ambitions, despite being made stateless.

In a move which reflects the unifying power of sport, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is supporting a team of Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA) in Rio.

The IOC has identified 43 athletes with promise, who are vying for places on the team, to be announced in June. The team is expected to comprise of between five and 10 athletes, all of whom must have official refugee status verified by the United Nations, and who have been nominated by National Olympic Committees for their sporting ability.

Given the athletes don’t have a nation to represent, they will march under the Olympic flag and Olympic anthem. As well as helping talented refugees to fulfil their sporting dreams, the IOC is hoping the ROA will shine a light on the refugee crisis.

Building it up
Pere Miró, director of Olympic Solidarity and NOC Relations, says: “We believe they will send a clear message to the world that the refugee situation exists, and all of us together should do something about it. It is global and it is very important.

“Through the ROA, we can demonstrate that sport has values, which these days are sometimes put in doubt for various reasons. By bringing these athletes back to the Games, back to sport, back to life, and by bringing sport to the refugee camps to improve the quality of life, we can believe we are going back to our roots and demonstrating that sport can serve society.”

Having faced terror and life threatening circumstances, we might assume that having Olympic athletes to represent them might not be top of the list for refugees. But global campaigning network, Care 2, says it will give them a sense of belonging: “For refugees seeking normality and a place in the world, validation at the Olympics carries powerful symbolism. Moreover, it sends a message to a global community that has not always welcomed refugees: they, too, are human, with the same dreams and potential as everyone else.”

The move has also been welcomed by Toby Green who runs a refugee football team in Swindon: “The fact the team will walk in the opening ceremony will put the refugee crisis into the media – but this time in a positive light: showing the public that refugees are often intelligent, athletic and hard working.”

ROA Olympic Hopefuls

Behind every refugee athlete is someone who has suffered but overcome huge adversity through sport


Syrian-born swimmer, Yusra Mardini, represented her homeland at the short course World Championships in Turkey in 2012. Mardini says the war made training difficult, and sometimes there were bombs in the swimming pool. Last August she fled Syria, boarding a small boat headed for Greece. When the vessel started taking on water, she swam the final 3.5 miles in open water. Having made her way to a refugee centre in Germany, she was introduced to the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 swimming club, which has led to her gaining a grant from the Olympic Solidarity Fund and to be shortlisted for the ROA.

“I want to inspire everyone,” she says. “When you have a problem in your life, it doesn’t mean you have to sit around and cry like a baby. The problem was the reason I am here, and why I am stronger and want to reach my goals.”

Athletes with refugee status making an appearance at Rio will also include Iranian-born Taekwondo player Raheleh Asemani – who currently works as a post woman in Belgium. She’s being supported by the Olympic Solidarity fund and qualified for the Olympics via a tournament in Istanbul, where she competed under the flag of the international governing body World Taekwondo Federation (WTF).

Others yet to confirm their sport include Misenga Popole and Yolande Mabika, two judokas who escaped the war in Democratic Republic of Congo three years ago and sought asylum in Brazil during the 2013 World Judo Championships in Rio. They escaped coaches who locked them up when they lost and sometimes failed to feed them for days.

Both have tragic back stories and still have difficult lives, but say judo has helped them forget the horror of war and the sadness of leaving families and loved ones behind.

"When you have a problem in your life, it doesn’t mean you have to sit around and cry like a baby. The problem is the reason I’m here and why I’m stronger and want to reach my goals" - Yusra Mardini, swimmer and Syrian refugee

Syrian swimmer, Yusra Mardini, swam part of the way to Greece and is now living in Germany
Syrian swimmer, Yusra Mardini, swam part of the way to Greece and is now living in Germany
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