Stronger together: The Refugee Olympic Team
The Tokyo Summer Olympics opened with much fanfare on last Friday (23) despite suffering setbacks due to the global pandemic. The games was supposed to be hosted in 2020 but was postponed to this year. However, thanks to tireless efforts by the Japanese authorities and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), athletes from around the world can still have their shot at glory without waiting for another four long years till COVID is over.
The 2021 Olympics will certainly be a decisive one in history due to the nature of current events at the time of its hosting. Besides the pandemic, almost all nations are currently facing multiple crises. As we approach mid-2021, the world is seeing multiple natural disasters from devastating floods in China and Germany to wildfires and hurricanes in North America as a result of global warming.
Social unrest is widespread as people grow more and more discontented with weakening political systems and economic policies. Tension is also rising in many parts of the world with escalating conflicts pushing millions out of their homelands. But there every cloud has a silver lining. Formed by the IOC prior to the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Refugee Olympic Team is back in this year’s games with 29 refugee athletes competing across 12 different sports.
The Refugee Olympic Team competes under the Olympic flag. The sports represented across the team include athletics, badminton, boxing, canoeing, cycling, judo, karate, taekwondo, shooting, swimming, weightlifting and wrestling. This year’s team consists of 25 athletes from 11 countries who have been living and training in 13 host countries with additional four athletes from the International Judo Federation Refugee Project, who will also compete in the first-ever Olympic judo mixed team event, complete the line-up.
On Friday, the athletes proudly entered the stadium second behind Greece, which traditionally leads the parade of nations and were welcomed warmly by the IOC President, Thomas Bach in his opening address. “It is something that gives us that hope that the world recognises us as human beings,” said James Nyang Chiengjiek, who will compete in the 800 metres race. As a boy, Chiengjiek fled his home in South Sudan to avoid being recruited as a child soldier and made his way without his parents to the sprawling Kakuma refugee settlement in northern Kenya, where his running talent was first discovered. The IOC selects athletes for the Refugee Olympic Team through the Olympic Scholarships for Refugee Athletes programme; evaluating their sporting performance as well as their refugee status as confirmed by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
According to the IOC, the Team aims to send a message of hope and solidarity as well as raise awareness of “the plight of over 80 million displaced people” across the globe. The athletes are without a doubt some of the most phenomenal humans of our times, surviving wars and persecution to go on to compete in the biggest sporting event in the world. By country of origin, the most number of athletes come from Syria, which has been embroiled by conflict since 2011. Five previously lived in Iran, four in South Sudan and three in Afghanistan.
Other countries of origin include Eritrea, Iraq, the Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Sudan and Venezuela. They will be going head to head with the best athletes the nations have to offer. Unlike the rest, their triumphs are not a tally of medals next to a flag but a triumph of the relentless human spirit. Their courage to rise above should be an inspiration to us all.