History’s First Olympic Team of Refugees Prepare to Compete in Rio

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Yusra-Mardini

Yusra Mardini / l3o_

August 2, 2017, NBC News

A team of six male and four female athletes will make history by walking into the opening ceremony at Maracanã Stadium, ahead of host country Brazil and just behind the white Olympic Games flag, when the Rio 2016 Games open this Friday. Though a few individuals have competed in the past as “Independent Olympic Athletes” unattached to a national team, the 10 will be the first refugees to compete as a team since the modern Olympics began in 1896.

These elite competitors are a declaration to the world that refugees are human beings. The Olympic flag under which they will march represents all countries. To participate, they each overcame impossible odds. Even a gold medal cannot fully capture their achievements as people striving to define their value to a world at war. More than 65 million fellow refugees join them in their quest for life and significance.

On World Refugee Day in June 2014, Tegla Loroupe, a former Olympian and the first African woman to win a major marathon, organized a simple race for refugees in Kenya in partnership with the UN. Those competing, some barefoot, were of world-class talent.

“They at least could have a career whereby they’d be treated as people, with dignity and pride,” Loroupe said.

Loroupe led the effort to create a training camp outside Nairobi and a series of trials. Meanwhile, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach decided to form a team of refugees to compete in the Rio Games and encouraged member countries to identify prospective athletes. As Bach said, upon unveiling the composition of the team:

These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem. We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the word. The Olympic anthem will be played in their honor and the Olympic flag will lead them into the Olympic Stadium. 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. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.

One of those prospects would be Yusra Mardini, a teenage swimmer from Syria. Narrowly escaping imprisonment and death several times, her harrowing journey to Germany snaked through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, and Central Europe. Between Turkey and Greece, in a dinghy made to accommodate six people, she and her sister and 18 other people attempted to make the crossing until the little outboard engine failed and the vessel began to take on water. Yusra and her sister jumped in the water to help bring the boat to shore.

Loroupe leads the refugee team under the neutral Olympic flag. Here is a video of the first members of the refugee team arriving in Rio last Friday. Here are more videos and stories of the Olympic refugee team members, including and especially Yusra Mardini.

Rio 2016 will be a worldwide cultural event that unites the attention and respect of every country through sports competition. Human achievement will be celebrated in ways unlike any other sporting event. Among these champions, these Olympians, will be 10 refugees who have already demonstrated their resilience and commitment to excellence. They are stateless ambassadors of the priceless value of each and every refugee and displaced person the world over. Each is a winner, regardless of how they place in their respective events.—James Schaffer