Olympics with a Cause: Refugee Olympics Team

For a first time this year, the Olympic Games will have one very special team participating – the Refugees Olympics Team.

source: UNHCR website

In a world, where 65 million people are asylum seekers, internally displaced or refugees, such team should have existed for a long time already. Why? Because it represents a large part of the world’s population, in 2013, accounted to 7.125 billion.

65 million people is a group, 3 times bigger than the population of The Netherlands (17 million), 6 times the population of Belgium (11.2 million) and only 20 million away from the entire population of Germany (80.6 million)


A good start

Such team should have been on the Olympics for years now, because the refugees are on the world’s agenda every day for the last 80 years, and are an increasing concern with shockingly growing proportions. Finally, an international organization other than the UN or the EU (who are, more or less required to deal with this issue) is putting the problem into the limelight. Of course, not in an actual, working way – the International Olympics Committee (IOC)  hopes to “raise awareness” (as all other international organizations do), so, at this point, nothing further than nice words and good intentions.

But it’s a start. And the occasion is very suitable – Olympics are by far, the most visited and followed international event in the world. In addition, they have always been some sort of a political scene, since their revival in 1896 as bridge between nations – the Munich’ 72 murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian rebels, the “black power” fists of the golden and silver medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico’68, the first televised games, Berlin’36, used by Hitler for propaganda, but morally won by the black athlete, Jessie Owens, the “divided” Olympics, Moscow’80, when 65 countries, led by the US, boycotted the games protesting the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. And so on, and so on.

Jesse Owens3.jpg

With this background, it goes without saying that the Olympic Games are the single focus event for any large international issue to be brought (and possibly anchored) in the minds of the people, to hopefully inspire some meaningful change. Second biggest concern in today’ world, after terrorism, is refugees.


Who’s on the team?

The 2016 Refugee Olympic Team includes a total of 10 athletes (6 men and 4 women), to compete in three disciplines – athletics (track and field), swimming, judo.

Looking at the group, one thing is immediately clear. And it’s a good thing, very much in scope with what this team is all about – the 10 do not come only from places, which currently are a hot topic in terms of refugee crisis (as is Syria). Instead, this team sheds light on (or, very possibly, introduces some people to) three other crises, lasting for too long already.

On #teamrefugees, we will see five athletes from South Sudan, where, only two years after gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, the country is drowned in bloody civil war with over 300 000 killed, 1 million displaced and 400,000 who fled the country. Two athletes from Democratic Republic of Congo will be there to remind us that this country is in a civil war since 1996, which so far caused the lives of 5.4 million people. The only Ethiopian on the team, Yonas, is from a country with an authoritarian regime, where marriages by abduction are 69 to 80%, and people with physical disabilities are considered impure.

The swimmers Rami and Yusra both come from Syria. He fled the destroyed city of Aleppo in 2011, first to Turkey, where he could only practice his swimming, but not to compete. So, Rami reached Greece by boat, and today lives in Belgium. Yusra was already popular even before ending up on the refugees’ team – her physical preparation made it possible for her to save 18 other refugees with whom she was trying to reach the Greek islands, by pushing a sinking boat for 4 hours in open seas. On  a similar event couple of years ago, sadly, the excellent fitness was not enough – in 2012, the Beijing Olympics runner, Samia Yusuf Omar drowned in the Mediterranean, trying to reach the Italian coast from Libya.


Under the flag

Photograph of the Olympic flag.jpg

In Rio, the 10 athletes of the refugee team will not participate under their home counties’ flags (or as individuals, which is also allowed) but under the 5 interlocked rings, the official flag of the games. The message is clear, they are there to stress on a shocking reality – every day, hundreds of people are forced to risk their lives and leave their homes because of war or persecutions, and this didn’t happen all of a sudden in the last 5 years. At some places this is everyday life for decades already.

What is also indisputably true is that the message would have been even more obvious if the team is bigger and participates in a lot more disciplines. At least, the first step is done and surely, there will be smiles under the Olympics flag – in hope to spread the word, and of individual determination, to go “faster, higher, stronger” .

Paola Ivanova Op den Kamp
Paola Ivanova Op den Kamp
Paola was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, and is experiencing the Dutch life for a couple of years already, With a background in marketing, linguistics, and media, she is a devoted music lover, good singer, active volunteer and a traveler, who likes to discover new places in full - by residing for some time.


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