Refugee Olympic team to be 'symbol of hope'

Refugee Olympic team to be 'symbol of hope'
IOC creates Games history by bringing athletes together to build the first-ever Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes, who will compete at Rio 2016.
4 min read
06 June, 2016
Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer in Germany, will compete under the Olympic flag [Getty]
When Ibrahim al-Hussein carried the Olympic torch through a refugee camp in Athens back in April, having been handed the flame from the head of the Greek Olympic Committee, the Olympic movement and the plight of refugees worldwide was spiritually united in a single passing of a baton.  

Al-Hussein, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee and multi-sport athlete best known for swimming, lost part of his right leg in a bombing in 2012 and travelled to Greece in a rubber dinghy two years later. He had dreamed of being an Olympian before his injury.

Through this hugely symbolic gesture of support for the refugee movement, and the worldwide media attention it brought, the International Olympic Committee drew attention to an initiative that it had actually unveiled a month prior to al-Hussein carrying the torch. 

In March, IOC plans were announced to form the first-ever team consisting entirely of refugee athletes. No fewer than 43 athletes made the shortlist, with ten eventually making it in to the squad. 

"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," said IOC President Thomas Bach as the team's names were revealed.

"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."

Syrian swimmer and Olympic torch-bearer Ibrahim al-Hussein
(centre-right) had his dreams of competing at the Games cut
short by the Syrian civil war [Getty]

The team will be officially called the Team of Refugee Athletes and will have the country code ROA. The IOC confirmed that, at the Opening Ceremony at Rio de Janeiro's Maracanã Stadium on August 5, the team will enter the stadium behind the Olympic flag, before the host nation, Brazil. 

Should they win any medals it will be the Olympic flag raised and the Olympic anthem played in honour of the victorious athletes.

This is not the first time that athletes have competed at the Games under the flag and the anthem of the Olympics itself; in the Summer and Winter Games of 1992, former Soviet athletes competed as the Unified Team, and a considerable number of summer Olympians from Yugoslavia and Macedonia competed in Barcelona as Independent Olympic Participants. 

At Sydney in 2000 there were a handful of athletes from East Timor competing under the five rings, but it would be another 12 years before this happened again. Athletes from South Sudan and the Netherlands Antilles, for contrasting reasons - the former country having just been established and the latter having just been dissolved - had to compete independently at London 2012, due to the lack of a National Olympic Committee for their respective nations.

Though there have been other independent competitors, the 2016 Team of Refugee Athletes sits apart from all previous cases; before now the independent athletes have usually originated from a particular country or countries in political transition. 

However, as Thomas Bach stated, "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 world".

Never too has the composition of an independent team at the Olympics been so globally spread, having sought refuge in Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Kenya, and Luxembourg.  

Yusra Mardini will be making a splash
at the Rio2016 Olympic Games [Getty]

Syrian Yusra Mardini has immediately emerged as one of the standard-bearers of the team in much the same way that her fellow Syrian swimmer Ibrahim al-Hussein did less than two months ago.

The 18-year-old's journey contains some stark similarities to his; after the engine in their flimsy boat failed, she and her sister took to the dark waters of the Mediterranean and helped pull a boat across the sea to Greece, relying on her strength as a swimmer. 

Mardini had represented Syria at the Short Course World Championships in 2012 and her promising swimming career was put back on track upon her arrival in Germany, where she was quickly identified as a great talent.

The war in Syria curtailed Ibrahim al-Hussein's dreams of taking part in the Olympic Games, but the torch has been passed to a new generation of refugee athletes whose status has been recognised by the Olympic movement for the first time.

All of the participants will be keenly watched, and their uniting under the flag of the Olympics will draw attention to not just their individual stories but those of many thousands more trapped in regions torn apart. 


Olly Hogben is a sports commentator, presenter and writer. Follow him on Twitter: @bennettcomms