The International Olympics Committee (IOC) presented the Refugee Olympic Team, consisting of 29 athletes, who will participate in the Tokyo Summer Olympics next month. Their participation will be the second of its kind, after the initial Refugee Olympic Team, which competed at the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016. At the inaugural event, a total of 10 athletes competed in Rio, while 6 of them will return to this year’s team to compete in Tokyo. IOC President Thomas Bach hails the project as a ‘symbol of hope for all refugees in the world and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis.’[1]

The Tokyo Team will be composed of 25 Refugee Athlete Scholarship-holders from 11 countries, who have been living and training in 13 host countries across the world. The remaining four athletes come from the International Judo Federation Refugee Project and complete the project. Overall, they will compete in 12 sports, ranging across the whole spectrum of Olympic disciplines. According to the official information by the IOC, the Refugee Olympic Team will march with the Olympic flag in the second position during the Opening Ceremony, immediately after Greece.[2] This will mark yet another exceptional piece of evidence of how refugees are an integral part of our international community. Rose Nathike Lokonyen, a refugee from South Sudan who carried the flag in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and who will participate this year too, described how ‘sport has the power to change the life of others, especially displaced people.’[3] In essence, sports have the potential to raise awareness of the precariousness of refugees.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi, who is also Vice Chairman of the Olympic Refuge Foundation (ORF), congratulated the athletes during their official unveiling by the IOC. According to Grandi, they embody the hopes and aspirations of more than 80 million people around the world. ‘Surviving war, persecution and the anxiety of exile already makes them extraordinary people, but the fact that they now also excel as athletes on the world stage fills me with immense pride.’[4] 

For example, Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee who escaped the civil war in August 2015, found herself and others in the cold waters of the Aegean Sea pushing her boat for hours towards the Greek shores. ‘Sport was our way out […] it was kind of what gave us hope to build our new lives.’[5] When she reached Berlin in September 2015, her passion for sports would allow her to compete for a medal, less than a year later in Rio. ‘I want people to understand that sport saved my life’[6] said Mardini in a recent interview, while also highlighting that refugees are people, not only stories in the news. Today, she is looking forward to participating again during the Olympic Games in Tokyo, where she will compete at the 100m Butterfly Aquatics event.

Overall, each athlete has their own story to tell and the Olympic Games offer a unique opportunity to share those. Everyone in this world, regardless of their background, should have the chance to succeed in life. Sports events can bring further awareness to the plight of over 80 million displaced people worldwide.


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