It started quietly three years ago when Thomas Bach, the new president of the International Olympic Committee, wondered how he might connect the worldwide refugee crisis with the Olympics. It was also a time when the Olympics needed to reinvent its image after doping scandals, corruption among Olympic officials and problems with the Rio venue threatened to tarnish the Olympic reputation.
Bach shared his idea with two-time New York City Marathon winner and Kenyan hero Tegla Loroupe, who had committed her career to identifying and training South Sudanese runners. Last fall the IOC authorized $2 million to aid refugee training worldwide. Part of that funding was used by Loroupe to expand her training camp in Ngong, fourteen miles outside Nairobi, to include thirty runners.
The ten-member Refugee Olympic Team was announced in June after a year-long selection process that included seventeen national Olympic Committees and the United Nations Refugee Agency. Bach said of the team, “It is a symbol of hope to all the refugees in the world. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem. We will offer them a home in the Olympic village with all the athletes of the world.” With 21 million refugees around the world and 44 million forcibly displaced people, many living under appalling conditions, the Refugee Team is also a symbol of courage, determination and heart.
The Refugee Olympic Team consists of five South Sudan runners, two swimmers from Syria, two judoka from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a marathon runner from Ethiopia. They have been given three stipulations: they could walk in the Opening Ceremony, live in the Olympic Village and participate in the qualifying heats.
Only one athlete, Yonas Kinde from Ethiopia, would have qualified for the Olympics strictly on achievement. No one watching the Opening Ceremonies could fail to have been moved when the Refugee Olympic Team entered the stadium to applause that was more sustained than any other team except the host country Brazil.
What the Olympics really signifies is the triumph of the human mind and heart as well as our God-given and God-encouraged ability to push our amazing bodies beyond our limits. When I watch the beauty of the shot put, the 10,000 meter run, the swimming medley relay, the balance beam or volleyball, I can’t help but think of the words of the Psalm 139.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
While each refugee’s story is both horrific and inspiring, Yusra Mardini’s journey typifies the Olympic spirit. Eighteen-year-old Mardini was born in Damascus and became a part of the Syrian swimming team. War broke out in 2011, her home was destroyed in 2012, and Yusra, her sister Sarah and two cousins finally fled last August.
Flying to Beruit and then to Istanbul, they hired smugglers to take them to Greece. Yusra and Sarah boarded an inflatable dinghy from Izmir, Turkey, to the Greek island of Lesbos, but the motor soon died and slowly took on water. The dinghy held twenty people, including a six-year-old boy.
Yusra and Sara and two young men were the only ones on the boat who knew how to swim, so they jumped into the water and pushed the boat for three and a half hours. Yusra described the experience, “All the people were praying. It seems funny now, but it was really hard. Me and my sister were in the water. Everyone said I had so much courage, but I remember thinking, I am a swimmer, but I am going to die in the water. I had to smile and be funny because there was a boy on the boat.”
After arriving in Lesbos, Yusra and Sarah walked or traveled in smugglers’ buses through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary and finally made it to a refugee camp in Berlin. There Yusra was able to find a local sports club and a trainer. When she heard about the Refugee Team, Yusra applied for and was granted a training scholarship.
During the first weekend of Olympic competition, Mardini placed 45th in the 100m butterfly freestyle heats, twelve seconds behind the winner. Reflecting on her Olympics experience, Yusra said, “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… When you are an athlete you do not think of country – you just have your lane, your cap and methods. My goal is a gold Olympic medal.”
The Refugee Olympic Team is already changing the world.
Rami Anis set a personal best in the 100m freestyle. “It’s a wonderful feeling to compete in the Olympics. I don’t want to wake up from this dream.”
Popole Misenga lost in the second round of judo. “I have two brothers and I haven’t seen them. I don’t know how they look anymore because we were separated since we were small. So I send hugs and kisses to my brothers.”
Yonas Kinde will compete on August 21 in the men’s marathon. “It’s very good news for refugee athletes that Olympic Solidarity have given us this chance to participate here.”
Yolande Bukasa Mabika was knocked out in the first round of the 70 kg women’s judo.
“Judo never gave me money, but it gave me a strong heart. I got separated from my family and used to cry a lot. I started judo to have a better life.”
Yiech Pur Biel did not qualify for the semi-finals the men’s 800m. “Sport gave me a sense of belonging. Even if I don’t get gold or silver, I will show the world that, as a refugee, you can do something.”
Paulo Amotun Lokoro will compete Tuesday in the men’s 1500m heats. “A dream would be to break a record. To win a medal, a gold, that is my dream.”
James Chiengjiek finished eighth in his heat of the men’s 400m. “My dream is to get good results at the Olympics and also to help people. Because I have been supported by someone, I also want to support someone.”
Angelina Nadei Lohalith finished 14th in the second of the women’s 1500m heats.
“I’m happy because it will be the first time refugees are represented in the Olympics. It will inspire other refugees because wherever they are they will see that they are not just the ‘other people’.”
Rose Nathike Lokonyen competes Wednesday in the 800m heats. “My dream, my first priority, is to help my parents and my siblings and then after that to help my fellow refugees.” (Team member quotes from BBC Refugee Olympic Team Update August 13)
Do you think God ever imagined how far or how fast we humans could swim, run, cycle or jump? One thing I do know. Each one of us has far more potential to bring hope, joy and peace into our world than we can possibly dream. All we need is the courage to begin.
“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
T. S. Eliot