For first time in history, refugees can compete in the Olympics

In an address before the UN General Assembly, the head of the International Olympic Committee announced that a $2 million fund will go towards allowing the refugees to compete at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. 

David J. Phillip/AP
The Olympic Park is shown in this aerial view Friday, Oct. 9, 2015, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The 2016 Olympic Games will be held in Rio de Janeiro.

For the first time in the history, refugees are welcomed to compete in the 2016 Olympics without an official national identity.

Highly qualified athletes who happen to be one of the 20 million refugees worldwide will be invited to Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro next year, the president of the International Olympic Committee announced Monday at the United Nations General Assembly.

“Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic Flag and with the Olympic Anthem,” IOC president Thomas Bach said.

His remarks were in conjunction with the request for the Olympic Truce, which is a temporary halt in the ongoing wars across the world from seven days before the start of the Olympic Games on August 5, 2016, until seven days after the Paralympic Games that are scheduled to end on September 18, 2016, which the UN approved in resolution.

Though the UN revived the ancient Greek tradition of détente during the participation in sports back in 1993, countries have typically ignored the requisition.

In his address, Bach said the committee has created a $2 million fund to finance the refugee Olympics endeavor and called on all 193 UN members to help identify talented athletes.

Historically, refugees have not been able to be part of the Olympics because they could not be part of any national committee, including that of their native country. But in the past, athletes have been permitted to compete as independents during national crises.

As Quartz reports, at the 2012 London Olympics, one marathon runner from South Sudan could not compete on his national committee because it had not been officially created, and during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, three Indian athletes had to be independents because their national committee had been banned by the IOC.  

“In this Olympic Spirit of peace and solidarity the IOC is together with the [UN Human Rights Council] assisting refugees all over the world by giving them activity, hope, and self-confidence through sport,” he continued.

“At the same time, we are assisting high-level refugee athletes to continue their sports careers. We help them to make their dream of sporting excellence come true even when they have to flee from violence and hunger.”

The number of refugees and asylum seekers has been increasing ever so drastically in recent years because of escalating violence in the Middle East and North Africa. Those escaping war in Iraq and Syria in particular make up a significant portion of the world’s displaced people.

The summer has been fraught with panic and frustration for the 600,000-some refugees and migrants who tried to gain entrance to Europe. The United States has pledged to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees among the 70,000 total in the next fiscal year, according to the White House.

But countries are struggling – and some are unwilling – to accommodate them. Without steady shelter, food, education, and assurance, even the fittest refugees may be less than equipped to compete in the Olympics.

Still, the sheer opportunity to participate is a great symbol of global solidarity.

“In the Olympic Village, we see tolerance and solidarity in their purest form,” Bach said. “This is the true spirit of ‘Olympic Unity in Diversity’ – athletes from every corner of the world, living together under one roof.”

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