Thursday, August 18, 2016


The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio has had its share of firsts. This is not the first Games to have rugby (the last time before it was discontinued was back in the 1920’s), but it’s the first appearance of the rugby sevens format, alongside another debut event, golf. Several National Olympic Committees (NOCs) that remained medal-less have finally gotten their first taste of Olympic glory, like Kosovo, Fiji and Puerto Rico. But perhaps the greatest and most significant new thing for Rio 2016 is a special arrangement by the International Olympic Committee for aspiring Olympians who have fled their homelands for various reasons: The Refugee Olympic Team.

This undertaking was the brainchild of IOC president Thomas Bach, who announced last March that the Committee was going to choose five to ten international refugees with experience in sports, to compete as their own NOC in Rio. Bach declared that he had done this to “to send a message of hope to all refugees of the world,” in the context of bringing the world’s attention to the worldwide crisis of political refugees, particularly the problem of migrants in the European Union which became one of the reasons for the successful “Brexit” referendum.

In all, ten out of a potential 43 UN-verified refugee athletes were given this honor and marched with pride and wonder at the Parade of Nations during the Olympic Opening Ceremony. They have ignited the public imagination on their appearance together during that event, but what has happened to them in the Games proper? Who are they anyway? And how well did they actually do?

Five of the Refugee Olympians are athletic runners from South Sudan: James Chiengjiek (men’s 400m), Yiech Biel (men’s 800m), Paulo Lokoro (men’s 1500m), Anjelina Lohalith (women’s 1500m), and Rose Lokonyen (women’s 800m). In the heat of the South Sudanese civil war, they fled to a refugee camp in Kenya, the African nation known for its Olympic runners. With support from their Kenyan NOC host, they jumped at the chance to compete at the Olympics and send a message with their presence. Chiengjiek, Biel, Lokoro and Lohalith came in near last at their respective heats in their running events and thus failed to advance to the semi-finals. Lokonyen is set to run in her event on August 17. Another runner, Yonas Kinde, left his politically troubled native country of Ethiopia in 2013 and lived in Luxembourg where he trained to run the marathon. He will be the last of the ROT to compete, on Sunday August 21.

Two refugees are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and escaped from its civil war to Brazil. They entered the Games as contestants for judo, although Yolande Mabika (70kg) was eliminated in her first match by Linda Bolder of Israel, and Popole Misenga (90kg) defeated Avtar Singh of India before being beaten in his second match by South Korean Gwak Dong-han Finally, the last two members of the ROT are two swimmers from Syria: Rami Anis (men’s 100m butterfly & 100m freestyle) and Yusra Mardini (same events for women as Anis’), who were the most prominent due to having escaped from the horrors of the war with ISIS. Both did not advance in all of their heats.

Mardini’s story in particular is both inspiring and heartbreaking, fleeing from her home to Beirut and traveling by sea to Greece, but not before saving her fellow refugees when their boat almost capsized, by swimming on the water and pushing their vessel all the way to shore on the island of Lesbos. Now living in Germany (Anis is in Belgium), Mardini impressed her coaches to the point of being groomed to swim for Germany in Tokyo 2020…until Bach’s announcement of the ROT selections. She also had to overcome hate comments on social media from her Syrian countrymen who were scandalized by pictures of her practicing in a swimsuit.

It was a small start and not so glorious, but hopefully the message was loud and clear.

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