Refugee team adds luster to the Olympic ideal

Ten athletes forced to flee their homelands have sent an inspiring message to the world

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Yiech Pur Biel, one of the 10 members of the Refugee Olympic team, poses Aug. 1 on a point overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro prior to the opening of the 2016 Olympic Games.

Some 2016 Olympic memories will linger long after the athletes have bidden farewell to Rio de Janeiro. New stars such as teenagers Katie Ledecky (swimming) and Simone Biles (gymnastics) amazed viewers with their stunning performances and repeated trips to the top of the medal stand. And the winningest Olympian ever, swimmer Michael Phelps, showed how athletes can defy the limits of age.

But hearts may have been most moved by the 10-member Refugee Olympic team, whose members were forced to flee violence in their home countries of Ethiopia, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan. Each of the six men and four women displayed his or her own profile in courage. While none won a medal, they demonstrated perseverance and inner strength, and served as models of hope for millions of other refugees worldwide.

(Some 65 million people – equivalent to the population of Britain or nearly 1 percent of the total world population – are now either refugees, displaced persons within a country, or people seeking asylum, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It is the highest number ever recorded.)

Runner Yiech Pur Biel escaped from his native South Sudan as a child and grew up in a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya. Alone and separated from his family, he does not know if they are still alive.

He and the other members of the Refugee team, competing under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee, earned a place of honor in the opening ceremony of the Games, marching in next to last, just before the team from the host country, Brazil. (Earlier in the year, Brazil chose a 12-year-old Syrian refugee to be one of the Olympic torchbearers as the flame passed through the capital city of Brasilia.)

Upon first seeing the world-famous Christ the Redeemer monument that overlooks the city of Rio, Mr. Yiech was inspired, he told The Associated Press. The nearly 100-foot-tall figure, whose arms are spread wide, filled him with a sense of welcome and tolerance.

“This is a great chance to show the world that refugees can do everything any human being can do,” Yiech says.

“We are not only refugees. We are like everyone in the world,” says another member of the Refugee Olympic Team, Yusra Mardini, a swimmer from Syria. “We can do something. We can achieve something.”

Last year Ms. Mardini and her sister fled the civil war in Syria and were trying to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos to seek asylum. When the dinghy’s motor quit, she and her sister, also a swimmer, jumped into the water and swam for hours towing the boatload of refugees to safety.

The world’s refugees are often either ignored or viewed with suspicion. By displaying their competitive spirit, and telling their remarkable personal stories, these refugee athletes add to the luster of the Olympic ideal and put human faces on a crisis that needs much more of the world’s attention.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.