At the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, why the Refugee Team represented a major triumph

Meeting Olympians without a country of their own to represent, so to speak, was a most humbling experience at the Laureus International Sports Awards in Monte Carlo in February.

These athletes formed the 'Refugee Team', a term both self-explanatory and pathos-laden. A motley group of 10 made up the contingent: Five athletes from Sudan, two from Syria, two from Congo and a solitary Ethiopian.

Among the galaxy of sports stars at the awards ceremony, they looked nondescript. They hardly attracted little attention initially. None obviously had the award-winning credentials of Usain Bolt or Simone Biles, nor the magnificent renown of past sports superstars like Nadia Comaneci, Boris Becker, Edwin Moses, Daley Thompson, Steve Waugh — to name a few — who were in attendance.

MONACO - FEBRUARY 14: The Winners of the Laureus Sport for Good the Olympic Refugee team pose with their trophy and Laureus Academy Member Tegla Loroupe at the Winners Press Conference and Photocall during the 2017 Laureus World Sports Awards at the Salle des Etoiles,Sporting Monte Carlo on February 14, 2017 in Monaco, Monaco. (Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for Laureus) *** Local Caption *** Tegla Loroupe

The Winners of the Laureus Sport for Good the Olympic Refugee team pose with their trophy and Laureus Academy Member Tegla Loroupe at the Winners Press Conference and Photocall during the 2017 Laureus World Sports Awards at the Salle des Etoiles, Sporting Monte Carlo in Monaco, Monaco. Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images for Laureus

But in fact, their presence signified a path-breaking event that had taken place year. And once it became known what they stood for in the Olympic movement, they got a rousing reception.

At the 2016 Rio summer Olympics, apart from all the stories about sporting prowess, achievement, talent, struggle, victory and loss, this was one that was perhaps among the most remarkable yet.

For these Games, the IOC had created a fund to train athletes from war-ravaged countries, athletes who could not compete under their own national flags. Athletes who had the talent and potential to be participating at the international level, but were deprived of locus standii.

For the International Olympic Committee, here was something they could do. Choose 10 athletes to compete under the Olympic Flag. Syrian refugee Ibrahim Al-Hussein carried the Olympic Flame through Eleonas refugee camp in Greece as part of the Flame Relay.

The Refugee Team competed in the IOC uniform because they couldn’t have the colours of their native country. But in the march past, they were given pride of place, just behind host country Brazil.

What did participating in the Olympics mean to these athletes? It was both a painful and liberating experience at the same time? Sudanese 800 metre runner Yiech Pur Biel, who along with Syrian swimmer Rami Anis was in Monte Carlo for the awards, perhaps captures the sentiment best:

"To be called a refugee is not gratifying. But this is circumstantial. It may not be your fault at all. Anyone can become a refugee. When we compete in the Olympics we tell the world that at least we can be part of the inspiration that these Games provide. We are refugees, but we can contribute to our society and the world…"

The Refugee Team was housed in the Olympic Village and treated exactly as all the other 11000 athletes in Rio by the IOC. They ate the same food and slept in rooms similar to those occupied by the likes of Michael Phelps etc.

Modern Olympics are structured around nation-states. Athletes represent their respective countries, under the aegis of the national Olympic Committee. They vie for honours — medals and national pride — against those from other countries. They have a flag which gives them identity and inspiration.

It’s a format that had prevailed for over a century since the Olympics were revived in 1896. The identity of the competing athlete at the Games was necessarily entwined with his or her country and flag.

That has changed with Rio, perhaps forever. Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, made the declaration of the “worldwide refugee crisis”. The UNHCR had hailed the participation of the refugees and a “tribute to the courage and perseverance of all refugees”.

As Syrian swimmer Rami Anis said, "I was waiting for a few years with no aid, no support, before we met this institution which helped me and made it possible for me to achieve my goals. I didn't leave my country to do tourism, rather because of the war and destruction back in Syria. So, while we might have lost our home and houses in our own country, we haven't left our dreams. We are here to keep believing in our dreams."

Essentially, the participation of the Refugee Team in the Rio 2016 Games was a seminal moment in how sport could play a major role in conflict resolution in a world riven with strife.

It was the first time something like this had been attempted. It was an acknowledgement by the sporting community of the enormous humanitarian crisis engulfing the world where politicians have been fighting, disagreeing, trying to help: or in fact actually creating the refugee crisis!

No complete solution is in sight, but gestures such as these provide aspiration, goodwill and hope of a better tomorrow.

Updated Date: Apr 09, 2017 14:49 PM

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