The Olympic Games are known for allowing top athletes from each country to compete against each other – but what if you don’t have a national team? The multi-sport event brings together communities around the world for engaging and inspiring competitions, both in the summer and winter. The International Olympic Committee established the Refugee Olympic Team in 2016 and brings together outstanding athletes from 11 different countries.1 In this manner, the team is not like any other – nationalities mix and take part in the global sports event. Refugee athletes are even eligible for scholarships as part of the International Olympic Committee’s refugee athlete program.2

However, all competitive sports teams have some things in common, namely a love of the game, as well as a great sense of teamwork and dedication. In an interview with CNN Sports, an original member of the Refugee Olympic Team Yusra Mardini reflected that she “represented more than Syria… I represented millions around the world”.3 The Refugee Olympic Team is set to compete again in Tokyo 2020. This time, 29 refugee athletes will compete in 12 different sports.4 Together with the UNHCR and Discovery, the International Olympic Committee has organized a promotional campaign entitled ‘In Conversation’ which will follow refugee athletes on the road to Tokyo. As all the Olympic athletes, refugee or not, compete on the global stage, it certainly will be an exciting time.

Importantly, the formation of refugee teams competing in sports mega-events should not stop there, with the International Olympic Committee urging other organizations to follow suit – that is if they don’t have refugee teams already.5 It is essential to note here that the participation of refugees in athletics goes beyond being competitors individually or on teams, but also as coaches, referees, and fans. At the local level, the intermingling of refugee and non-refugee athletes has been proven to help with the integration and navigation of new environments6; however, at the international level where teams are grouped based upon nationality, it is crucial to find ways to include those excluded. In other words, while refugees are fighting for their social, political, and cultural rights, efforts should be made to ensure that these athletes are not left on the sideline.

Even without being an athlete of the highest caliber, sports are undoubtedly important for the daily lives of displaced populations. In an interview with the International Paralympic Committee, Iraqi refugee Sami shared his story and called on other refugees to get active: “I lost my home, I felt like nothing. But sport opened my eyes. Open your eyes, do sport and start a new life”.7 Certainly, this is good advice, as sports have been found to encourage young participants to “express themselves through bodily practices, construct and perform social identities, and craft emotional closeness to, or distance from, other people”.8 However, it is not always a straightforward process to join a sports team. Research has found numerous barriers to accessing social support resources for refugees, and athletics are no exception.9 Consequently, the initiative of the International Olympic Committee to establish a designated team and scholarships for refugee athletes is well received. Looking ahead to Tokyo and beyond, more measures need to be taken to ensure that refugees are not picked last.


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