“Without swimming, I would never be alive,” eighteen-year-old Yusra Mardini told the Washington Post. Neither would 20 other people. After the motor failed in a boat she was using to flee her war-torn home of Syria, Mardini and her sister pushed the boat to safety, swimming for three hours in the Aegean Sea. Mardini would go on to win her heat of the 100-meter butterfly at the 2016 Olympic Games.
For the first time in the history of the Olympics, the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro included a Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), of which Mardini was a part. It consisted of 10 refugee athletes chosen by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from a pool of 43 athletes being considered for the team. The following nine refugees joined Mardini at the Games: Rami Anis, a swimmer originally from Syria, who received a standing ovation after his heat; Yiech Pur Biel, an 800-meter runner originally from South Sudan; Yonas Kinde, a marathoner originally from Ethiopia; Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, a 1500-meter runner originally from South Sudan; Rose Nathike Lokonyen, an 800-meter runner originally from South Sudan and the standard-bearer for the ROT in the Opening Ceremonies; Paulo Amotun Lokoro, a 1500-meter runner originally from South Sudan; Yolande Bukasa Mabika, a judoka player originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and Popole Misenga, a judoka player also from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
To create the team, the IOC asked National Olympic Committees (NOCs) to identify refugee athletes in their countries who might qualify; the athletes were then given funding by the Olympic Solidarity Commission for preparation, travel, and other expenses. The IOC also created a US$2 million emergency fund in September 2015 for NOCs to use toward relief projects and aiding displaced athletes worldwide. The IOC has been working with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help refugees for 20 years now.
In choosing athletes for the team, the IOC focused on those who needed the most financial assistance, according to head of media relations at the IOC, Emmanuelle Moreau. The committee also considered athletic performance. Even before being selected for the team, the athletes received IOC support. For example, the IOC supported Mardini in her training at a swim club in Berlin, which allowed her to reach her full potential leading up to the Olympic Games in Rio.
Part of the IOC’s mission in creating the ROT was to ensure that it would be “treated like all the other teams,” said Thomas Bach, president of the committee. The athletes were screened for doping, provided with medical staff and coaches, and lived in the Olympic Village with all of the other athletes. The ROT did not win any medals in the 2016 Games, but this did not surprise or disappoint IOC Deputy Director General Pere Miro. The purpose, he explained, was their presence, its symbolism, and the attention it raised throughout the rest of the world. It was also important to highlight how sports had played such a vital role in keeping these refugees motivated, driven, and dedicated throughout so much suffering and adversity, and how large a victory it was for each of them to compete at all.
The IOC had hoped for the influence of the ROT to reach beyond the Olympic Games. The Olympics’ official website stated the athletes would “act as a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide and bring global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis.” The team presented the perfect opportunity to put a human face on the crisis for the rest of the world. The athletes got a chance to prove that they were real, capable competitors with stories, that they were more than just victims of trauma or numbers in the news. Filippo Grandi, UNHCR commissioner, also said in a PBS interview that the “team [aimed] to counteract negative global sentiment toward refugees” by demonstrating their strength and resilience and thus getting rid of some of the anonymity that surrounds the global refugee crisis.
Uri Friedman identifies another benefit of the ROT: challenging the nationalistic spirit of the Olympics. Calling the refugee team “a testament to international paralysis,” he applauds how it “highlight[ed] national failures” within a tradition built on celebrating national successes. In doing so, the ROT brought to light certain issues that might otherwise be shrouded by the idealism that seems to follow the games. In Mardini’s own inspiring words: “We are not only refugees. We are like everyone in the world. We can do something. We can achieve something.”
Mardini hopes to keep achieving with continued IOC support. Both she and Anis aim to compete at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. And while all 10 athletes hope to have home countries to represent in the future, they are proud to be representing refugees across the globe. In the words of Bukasa Mabika, an ROT judoka player, “the IOC is building a refugee family of athletes.”
Although the ROT athletes’ commitment to their sports promises to outlive the 2016 Games, the humanitarian spirit they brought to Rio faces a more uncertain path as they fade from the international spotlight. The crisis has been worsening across the globe, with the global refugee count at 60 million, the highest it has been since World War II. But international interest in the issue has not matched the crisis’s steady increase in severity. Google trends show that the search rate of the phrase “refugee crisis” is almost as low now as it was before the civil war in Syria began. The word “refugee” saw a decrease of nearly 15 percentage points between the month of August 2016 (when the Olympics took place) and the following month. While a large spike in August does show that the ROT succeeded in getting people talking about refugees, the subsequent dip hints that, like with so many other atrocities, the international interest might be something of a fad.
Ironically, the same nationalism that the refugee athletes helped to shatter at the Rio Games also plays a large role in barring their friends and family from entry into countries like Hungary and Austria, which have been less welcoming to refugees and asylum seekers. Everyone loves to cheer on refugees when they’re Olympic athletes, the lovable underdogs who fled war zones in pursuit of their dreams. But in practice, no one wants to welcome those refugees into their countries, where their presence is seen as threatening, not inspirational. “The world is being pulled in two directions at once,” writes Roger Cohen for the New York Times. “The force of globalization, of nomadic humanity, of borderless cyberspace,” exalted especially in Olympic years, is countered by an equally strong embrace of “nationalism, nativist policies and anti-immigrant bigotry.” Many of the people who retweeted an article about Yusra Mardini also go on to support anti-immigrant policies at home. This begs the question of whether the awareness the IOC aimed for is actually effective. It could very well be that Western viewers are simply compartmentalizing the issues, thinking about the ROT members as athletes outside the context of the international crisis they escaped. They could be viewed as 10 of the many inspiring Olympic athletes, rather than 10 of the 60 million refugees without homes. Cohen asks a chilling, yet appropriate question: “After the fanfare, will anyone remember?”
This is the next challenge of the IOC, as it continues to support some of this year’s athletes in their future training. Of course, that challenge is not the job of the IOC alone to fulfill. As Friedman acknowledges, “affirming that 10 athletes are not officially dead to the world of Olympic competition just because they’ve been separated from their country is, without question, a very small step in addressing the refugee crisis. But it’s a small step occurring on a big stage.” Hopefully this big stage, in the international spotlight many months after the refugee crisis began, has helped keep the momentum moving.
There is no doubt that this is a step in the right direction, initiating a marked change in the way the international community views refugee status. In an international political climate balancing precariously between globalization and nativism, a widespread attitudinal shift like this could make all the difference.