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For Rio's refugee athletes, something much larger than a medal at stake

spirit of humanity

For these 10 Olympians, competing in the Games is a symbol of hope cast out from Rio to buoy all those they left behind.

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    Members of the Refugee Olympic Team watch a performance during a welcome ceremony at the Olympic athletes village in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016
    Charlie Riedel/AP
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Even among Olympians, their stories of perseverance and grit are uniquely harrowing – the Syrian swimmer who swam for her life across the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece, the Congolese Judo fighter who trained in shoes he found in a Brazilian garbage bin. 

But the 10 members of the Refugee Olympic team are unusual in another way as well. From the moment they were selected for the first ever Olympic team for stateless people in early June, they have been called upon to be global representatives for the greatest human displacement crisis of the past 70 years.

“If we succeed, we succeed for all of them. If we fail, we fail all of them,” says Yiech Pur Biel, a South Sudanese runner on the refugee team, who will run the 800 meters in Rio on August 12. 

For every athlete in Rio this summer, the stakes of their Olympic moment are high. Medals, prize money, fame, and their future careers hang in the balance.

But for the refugee team, something much larger rides on the competition.

Though the team has been mobbed by fans and feted by dignitaries in Rio, when they leave they will return to a world far less sympathetic to those with no country.

Across Europe, where several of the team members live and train, right-wing parties are gaining strength on the promise to keep refugees out, and in Kenya, where five of the athletes grew up, the government is pushing aggressively to scale down its massive refugee camps. For these 10 Olympians, competing in the Games is much a statement of solidarity as it is a feat of athleticism, a symbol of hope sent forth from Rio to all those they left behind.

“These people are ambassadors for peace,” says Tegla Loroupe, the elite Kenyan marathoner and the leader of the refugee delegation in Rio. “These are extraordinary people – not just athletes, but people. They want to go home, to seek peace, to have lives like anyone else’s.”  

A record of a different sort

Few expect records or medals from the refugee squad. All were brought into the games as wild cards – meaning they were allowed in without meeting the official qualifying standards (as are many athletes from countries and regions underrepresented in the Games). Nevertheless, no team has been so universally popular at these Olympics.  

It began with Yusra Mardini, an 18-year-old Syrian swimmer who last August helped save 20 Syrian refugees by jumping into the water with three others after their boat's motor died, and pushing and dragging the dinghy across the choppy waters of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.

Almost a year to the day later, she plunged into the pool at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium Sunday for her heat in the 100 meter butterfly. One minute and 9 seconds later, she touched the wall to find herself victorious – and the stadium around her erupting in cheers. Although the time wasn’t enough to qualify her for the next round, Mardini appeared unconcerned.

“Everything was amazing,” she told reporters after the swim. “The only thing I ever wanted was to compete in the Olympics. I had a good feeling in the water. Competing with all these great champions is exciting.” (Mardini went on to also compete in the 100 meter freestyle, finishing 45th  of 46 competitors with a time of 1 minute 4 seconds).

Several of her teammates, meanwhile, completed their own events to equally dramatic encouragement. Syrian swimmer Rami Anis posted a personal best in the butterfly to a standing ovation Tuesday (He did not advance), and Congolese judoka Yolande Mabika told a reporter for The Guardian that despite a loss in her opening bout in the 70 kilogram category, she “felt perfect. I entered the stadium to fight and I felt a lot of people calling me, encouraging me. I felt at home.” 

Another Congolese judoka, Popole Misenga,  won his first round fight Wednesday before losing to the reigning world champion,Gwak Dong-han, of South Korea, in the Round of 16 – a loss almost drowned out by the chants of Po-po-le! Po-po-le echoing through the stadium, according to The Guardian.

“The [International Olympic Committee] makes statements about the positive power of sport that often border on vapid prattle,” says Jules Boykoff, author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. “But this is one instance in which there’s not just talk, but action.”

As some critics have noted, there is a distinct irony to the Olympic committee’s warm welcome of the refugee team, even as the Games have forced tens thousands of poor Rio residents from their own homes.

But for the competitors themselves, this isn’t just about symbolism. It’s about finding a way out.

Five members of the team, including Mr. Biel, spent their childhoods bouncing in and out of Kakuma, a refugee camp of more than 150,000 people huddled near Kenya’s northwestern borders with South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Uganda. Life was not on hold there, exactly, they say, but neither did it have any great momentum. Most felt they had little chance of integrating permanently into Kenyan society, and even less of going home.

So when each of them got the call that they were going to Nairobi to train with Ms. Loroupe at a center she had created for refugee athletes late last year, it was as though a prison door had swung open and suddenly the entire world was in front of them, vast and conquerable.

“For my family, this is the moment where I will go out and do something for them,” says Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, a South Sudanese refugee runner who will compete in the 1500 meters on Aug. 13. At times, she says, that is a burden of immense size, one that stalks her sleep and creeps up on her deep into training runs.

That is a responsibility shared by all the athletes, but as a woman she has felt it especially acutely. Between when Ms. Lohalith arrived at Loroupe’s Ngong hills training camp in January and the selection of the refugee Olympic team six months later, nearly every woman in the program had dropped out, unable to reconcile their responsibilities as mothers, daughters, and breadwinners back home in Kakuma with the floaty dream of competing in a global sporting even.

“Most of the work in this world is done by women,” she says. “A woman can do what a man can do twice.”   

Like many of her teammates, Olympic running is a late-stage dream for Lohalith, rather than a lifelong ambition, grafted uneasily onto other goals she is at times eager to return to. When the Olympics are over, she says, she would like to quit running, finish high school, and become a doctor. One of her South Sudanese teammates, James Nyang Chiengjiek, who has an engineering degree, says he would like to find work in that field. And Mr. Biel wants to return to South Sudan as a human rights lawyer.

“We need more people who can show people how to follow the law, that this is the way forward to peace,” he says. He hopes his newfound celebrity status as an Olympic athlete will inspire someone to offer him a scholarship so that when he returns home from Rio, he can continue his education.

“But first of all, let me finish this running thing,” he says. In the past year, he has been able to think of little else.

“We are representing all the refugees in the world now,” he says. “All of them are watching to see how we will do.”

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