Team Refugee – Olympians in More Ways than One

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Our team’s greatest mission is to represent the biggest flag: which is all countries”- Yusra Mardini, Olympic refugee Athlete

Since the modern Olympic Games began in Athens in 1896, more than 200 countries have participated. Some of them don’t even exist anymore (e.g., Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union). Some send hundreds of athletes (the USA and China for instance), while some send just one or two (Tuvalu, Dominica, and Liberia among others).

But what about displaced persons? World class athletes are no different than anyone else when their countries fall into chaos. Until now, they were stuck while they waited to go home or to have citizenship a new country.

The Refugee Team: These Brave Athletes Already Won the Greatest Medals

Team Refugee – Olympians in More Ways than OneImage Source: Abc

“People ask if they can win a medal. I say they have already won their medals just by getting to Rio,” the Olympic refugee coach Geraldo Bernardes said. Bernardes is rightThese brave athletes have already won the greatest prizes: the gifts of life and freedom. 

In Rio this year, there are ten athletes who will participate as the Refugee Olympic Team. “The International Olympic Committee formed the team with the assistance of the United Nations. It identified an original list of 43 candidates to make the team, a process that included a tryout camp at a Kenyan refugee camp. The IOC winnowed the list to 10 based on the status and ability level of the athletes.”

Originally from South Sudan, Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia, they are two swimmers (Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis), two judokas (Popole Misenga and Yolande Bukasa Mabika), a marathoner (Yonas Kinde) and five medium-distance runners (Yiech Pur Biel, Paolo Amotun Lokoro, James Chiengjiek, Anjelina Nadai Lohalith and Rose Nathike Lokonyen).

Lokonyen, a 23-year-old South Sudanese runner, led the team into Maracana Stadium last week. She spoke for all her teammates when she said, “I feel very excited. This is the first chance for the refugees to participate in the Olympics and to give us hope, for us to encourage the young generations of fellow refugees who are remaining in the camps maybe to continue their talent …. Being a refugee doesn’t mean you are not a human being like others even though they undermined us. We can do what others can do.”

While they entered the stadium under the Olympic flag, a team of creatives in Amsterdam had designed both a flag and an anthem for them.

Olympic refugee flagImage Source: Wired

“We felt that we needed to do something to give them an identity, a flag and an anthem they could call their own—national symbols that could really represent these brave people,” say Artur Lipori and Caro Rebello, two of the people behind the project.

The flag, designed by Yara Said, a Syrian refugee in the Netherlands, who used a life jacket for inspiration. The flag is an orange banner with a black horizontal stripe.

As with any bureaucracy, the IOC needs time to go through all the protocols involved in approving both the flag and the anthem for official use. But that hasn’t stopped their unofficial use.

“We’ve seen lots of people in the games carrying our flag, and that’s for us the most important thing,” they say. “We created a way to help people to cheer for these athletes, and that’s exactly what’s happening. We are still working to get our flag during the refugee athletes competitions and in the final ceremony.”

Ideally, none of this would be necessary, but for Tokyo 2020, I genuinely hope the Team Refugee flag and anthem receive the IOC’s sanction. There are 60 million refugees according to the UN, and they aren’t going to be resettled with papers in order in the next four years.

As an aside, the Kuwaiti team has been suspended by the IOC, after accusations of government interference of sports ministers in the Gulf State. However, athletes have been allowed to enter the tournament, and their two medals, Gold and Bronze in shooting events, were celebrated under the Olympic flag, with their medals currently being counted towards the Independent Olympic Athletes team. 
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