Zika Virus. Rampant police corruption. Severe water pollution and let’s not forget an uninhabitable athletes’ village. These are just some of the many issues that plagued the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Yet there remains a shining light in the dark, sewerage filled waters of the games. Ten athletes are making history competing as refugees under the Olympic flag.
Article 1 of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as; an individual who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence who is unable or unwilling to return due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. In 2015 the number of refugees and displaced people in the world reached a record 60 million. This is the highest figure since the Second World War, and this number has and will only continue to rise. Although conflict in Syria is seen to be the largest contributor; violence and poverty in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Iraq has also caused mass displacement. The combination of a number of nations in turmoil has resulted in a worldwide migrant crisis with millions of people claiming asylum within Europe.
In March, Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declared that due to the circumstances of the crisis, a team of athletes would be chosen to represent the Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROT). The athletes will not only be able to pursue their dreams and inspire others but they will also be highlighting the severity and importance of the crisis to the international community. This comes after Ibrahim Al-Hussein, an athlete and refugee from Syria was chosen to carry the Olympic Flame through Elaionas refugee camp in Athens. Al-Hussein, a competitive swimmer, lost part of his leg when his home city of Deir ez-Zor was bombed in 2012. He then fled to Turkey before crossing the Aegean Sea in a rubber dinghy to Greece, where he decided to remain. Living, working and training in Greece, Al-Hussein was able to live out his own dream while giving hope to others who have fled their homes.
The ten athletes chosen to represent ROT were all high level athletes who had to put their careers on hold and flee from violence within their home-states but have since resumed their training and are once again ready to compete. The problem that plagued these athletes were that without a country to represent, competing in the Olympic Games would have been impossible. For the first time in history, and probably not the last, two Syrian swimmers, five South Sudanese track athletes, two martial artists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and one Ethiopian marathon runner marched into the Opening Ceremony under the Olympic flag. By the sound of the thunderous applause they received, it was obvious the crowd at Maracanã Stadium knew they were witnessing a truly special moment in Olympic history.
The International Olympic Committee, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and people all over the world (including myself) believe in the power of sport to make a difference. Perhaps this group of displaced athletes will be able to prevent the ever increasing anti-migrant rhetoric that is spreading across the globe and prove that although they may be refugees it doesn’t mean they aren’t still people capable of participating in and contributing to society in a big way.
Nelson Mandela once said that “sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” So when you sit in front of the TV cheering on the Aussie team, why not show your support for Team ROA? Cheer for Yusra Mardini, the 18-year-old from Syria, who won her first Olympic heat less than a year after swimming for her life to cross the Aegean Sea. Cheer for Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika, two judokas who managed to escape the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the deadliest conflict in modern African history. Let’s not forget that it claimed the lives of over 5 million people. Cheer for Paulo Amotun Lokoro, Yiech Pur Biel, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, Yonas Kinde, James Nyang Chiengjiek and Anjelina Nadai Lohalith because they are not merely athletes going for gold, but symbols of peace and inspiration to a world in crisis. So raise your voices in support of this group of inspirational underdogs. I know I am.
Evie Ward is a Political Science/International Relations and Law and Society major at UWA and First Year Representative in the International Law Club. She spends her time watching the Olympics and drinking tea when she should be studying.