Berlin: About 60 million people live far away from their homeland after being pushed away by war or other types of violence. For 10 of them, a terrible journey through seas, deserts and foreign countries led to an unexpected destination: the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The new team of Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA) is bound to be among the stars of the Games from the opening ceremony on August 5, when they lead the parade under the Olympic flag, ahead of host country, Brazil.
“By welcoming ROA to the Olympic Games in Rio, we want to send a message of hope to all the refugees of the world,” Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said when he announced the team’s creation in March.
“Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugees will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic flag and with the Olympic anthem. They will have a home together with all the other 11,000 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees in the Olympic Village,” Bach said.
The IOC identified and pre-selected 43 refugee athletes, out of whom six men and four women eventually qualified for the event: five from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and one from Ethiopia.
Out of all those personal struggles, the most dramatic and spectacular is probably that of Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini, who has been chosen as ROA’s flag bearer.
The 18-year-old arrived in Berlin in early September, after a long, epic journey that included a heroic, life-or-death moment. The engine of the boat that was smuggling her and about 20 other refugees from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos broke down. Yusra, her sister (also a swimmer) and another girl then jumped into the water and pushed the boat for hours, to safety.
“Out of the 20 people, only three of us knew how to swim. It would have been a disgrace not to help,” the young woman said during a crowded meeting with about 100 reporters in Berlin in March.
Mardini continued her journey from the Greek mainland to Germany. When she arrived at a refugee camp in Berlin, she said she was a swimmer, and an interpreter got her a trial at the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 club.
“I cannot explain the excitement I feel,” she said after making it into the Games following months of training.
With her childlike gaze and warm smile, Yusra qualified to compete in the 200 metres freestyle. The other nine refugees chosen for the ROA will take part in athletics, swimming and judo events. The IOC will fund their transport, accommodation, equipment and training.
Selection was based both on sports performance and on personal aspects. This is, after all, an initiative that goes well beyond sport.
“These 43 athletes are the tip of the iceberg. The goal is to attract the world’s attention to this problem,” the IOC’s deputy director general Pere Miro said in Berlin.
Miro, who is also president of Olympic Solidarity, the agency that runs this project, said that more than half of the pre-selected athletes came from Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, where sport is the only way to escape from a very tough everyday life.
“They have 160 football teams, 60 basketball teams, several leagues,” Miro explained.
Beyond Mardini, the list includes Syria’s Rami Ani (who lives in Belgium); South Sudan’s Yiech Pur Biel, James Nyang Chiengjiek, Anjelina Nada Lohalith, Rose Nathike Lokonyen and Paulo Amotun Lokoro (all of whom live in Kenya); Ethiopia’s Yonas Kinde (who lives in Luxemburg) and RDC’s Popole Misenga and Yolande Bukasa Mabika (who both live in Brazil).
They may not have a country they can represent at the Games, but they will still have the support of a troubled, numerous people who will follow their performances from around the world. ROA athletes know that, and they are also very clear about their goals in Rio.
“I want all refugees to feel proud,” Mardini said.
Misenga, a judoka, put it differently.
“I will represent them all. I will win a medal for all refugees,” he said.