Refugees in Rio

Refugee team to compete in the Olympics for the first time, to highlight refugee crisis.

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Refugees in Rio

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When the Rio Olympics begin on August 5, there will be a new team walking into the stadium alongside the 205 national teams.

This year, for the first time, a team of 10 refugees will compete across Athletics, Swimming and Judo. The International Olympic Committee hopes that the team will “act as a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide and bring global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis”.

The team includes 5 runners from South Sudan, 2 Congolese Judokas, and 2 Syrian swimmers.

They will compete under the Olympic flag, and as Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer says, “We are representing now, the biggest flag… all the countries”.

All Olympian’s stories are inspiring, and their journeys are often full of sacrifice. But this team went through more pain, and gave even more to make it to Rio.

Mardini, for example, had to use her swimming prowess to escape the war in Syria. The boat she was on, with 19 other refugees, began to sink in the Mediterranean. Along with her sister and another girl, Yusra dragged their boat to safety.

She says she never wants to swim in the open water ever again.

Yolande Mabika will compete in the Women’s 70kg Judo event. She learnt the sport in a Kinshasa orphanage, and after finding her way to Brazil was taken under the wing of four-time Olympian Geraldo Bernardes. Bernardes has trained Judokas from challenging backgrounds before, most notably the 2013 World Champion, Rafaela Silva who grew up in the notorious Rio de Janeiro favelas.

Mabika is focussed on the Games now, but for her, and the rest of the team, these Olympics are more than just sport; “This is not just a struggle for sport, it is a struggle for life. I am going to fight for my life”.

The athletes were all chosen by the IOC, after being nominated by National Committees (NOC’s) that had identified displaced athletes that could reach Olympic standard.

Each of the athletes are “hosted” by the NOC where they now live. For example, James Chiengjiek, Yiech Biel, Paulo Lokoro, Rose Lokonyen and Anjelina Lohalith are all South Sudanese, but were spotted by the NOC of Kenya, where they fled after a violent civil war broke out in Sudan.

The team is not the only effort the IOC has made to recognise the plight of refugees in this Olympic cycle. Ibrahim al-Hussein, a Syrian refugee living in Athens was chosen to carry the Olympic flame through the Eleonas refugee and migrant camp during the Torch relay.