More than 200 countries participated in the Olympic Games in Brazil in August. At the Opening Ceremony, each team marched behind its national flag. But right at the end, just before the host nation, came a team that is unique in Olympic history: a team of 10 refugees from four countries.
They marched behind the flag that unites them: the Olympic flag.
The Olympic movement has always aspired to promote peace: countries confront each other on the sports field rather than the battlefield. In the days of the ancient Greek Olympics, a truce was declared for each Olympiad. Since 1994, the tradition has been revived, with an international truce being declared by the United Nations.
The refugee team is part of that philosophy — for two weeks they were able to forget the conflict they have had to flee. And they represent hope for their home populations.
There were ten athletes: five from South Sudan, two from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, two from Syria and one from Ethiopia. The four women and six men competed in judo, swimming and athletics – middle and long-distance running.
Some of the athletes already participated in international-level sports before being forced to flee. Others discovered sports when living in refugee camps.
James Nyang Chiengjiek, 25, had to flee from his home in South Sudan at the age of 13 — he was at risk of being forced to be a child soldier in the conflict. At school as a refugee in Kenya, he discovered athletics. He competed in the 800 metres in Rio. And he hopes to help other refugees have similar opportunities.
For Yusra Mardini, 18, from Syria, her sport, swimming, was literally a lifesaver. She represented Syria in international competitions. But in 2015, because of the war, Yusra and her sister had to flee from Damascus. They got on a small boat to try to get to Greece, but it started sinking. The girls got into the water, swimming and pushing the boat to save the other passengers. After receiving asylum in Germany, Yusra started training again. She is delighted to be able to participate in the Olympics. She says, “I want to represent all the refugees. I want to inspire them.”
None of the athletes had serious medal hopes, and none progressed further than the heats in their competitions, except Popole Misenga (above), who progressed to third round in judo -90kg. But perhaps more than any other team, the refugees symbolise the Olympic ideal: it’s not winning that matters, it’s taking part. For each one of the team members, just getting to the Olympic Games was a victory.
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