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Olympic Hopes

25 July 2016

On August 5, the world’s first refugee team will walk out for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Ten athletes carrying the torch for 20 million in the hope that sport really can change the world.

The power of sport to offer hope is undeniable across all walks of life. It lifts spirits, it changes perceived destinies, it offers escapism. However, when the 10 athletes chosen to participate at the 2016 Olympic Games walk into Rio’s Maracanã Stadium this month, it could perhaps be the greatest ever example of its ability to raise awareness and, hopefully, instigate change.

With more than 20 million refugees around the world – one in 350 humans – the International Olympic Committee has created a team for displaced athletes, spending US$2 million in the process. Ten athletes – five runners from South Sudan and one from Ethiopia, two Syrian swimmers and two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – will compete under the Olympic flag, much like athletes from Yugoslavia and Macedonia did at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona due to civil war.

“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag and no national anthem,” said IOC president Thomas Bach. “The Olympic anthem will be played in their honour and the Olympic flag will lead them into the Olympic Stadium. This will be a symbol of hope for all refugees and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis.

“These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”

Of course the IOC’s well-intentioned point of forming a refugee team is to show solidarity at a time when millions are fleeing persecution, but when the athletes affiliated to it parade through the Maracanã Stadium for the opening ceremony on August 5 they could be forgiven for still feeling a little left out. The truth is most of the 10,500 athletes in Rio aren’t genuine medal contenders. For those who fall into this category the opening ceremony will be the highlight of the Games; an indescribable moment that an athlete works towards their whole life.

“I can’t wait to enter the Maracanã,” said 24-year-old judoka Popole Misenga, who sought asylum in Brazil during the 2013 World Judo Championships and now works as a truck loader to fund his training.

“Most athletes in Rio dream of winning a medal, but for me it’s more about raising awareness.

“Judo is my life. It has helped me escape war, but I still cry every day for my homeland. A gold medal won’t solve that or bring my family or friends back, but having a voice at the Games could at least inspire peace.”

Misenga lost his mother when he was just nine during the Second Congo War, the deadliest conflict in modern African history. He was found hiding in a forest and taken to Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. It was here he discovered a rather unorthodox form of judo.

“I didn’t have a proper coach to begin with,” recalled Misenga, who won bronze at the 2010 African Under-20 Judo Championships. “I was taught using fear and was always terrified of defeat. Winning meant I got fed; losing involved being locked in a cage and occasionally being thrown a stale piece of bread.”

Misenga paints a frightening picture, but Rio’s other nine refugees all have equally harrowing tales.

“We often joke about, each trying to trump each others’ war stories, but that’s just a defence mechanism,” said Misenga’s Congolese compatriot and fellow judoka Yolande Mabika. “It is so sad that we don’t have a flag to march behind, but I am grateful to the IOC and the Brazilian people for getting us this far. I am afraid I can’t claim to be happy. I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t depressed at what has happened back home. I feel unsettled, but focusing on the Games has given me a purpose.”

The interlocked Olympic rings symbolise unity and the hope remains that this summer’s Games can somehow fix the world – a fanciful wish, but one worth clinging to. The reality, though, is the Olympics lasts two weeks and once over there’s a four-year wait until Japan – and by 2020 the refugees could plausibly outnumber Olympic heavyweights like America, Great Britain or China.

Ultimately, it’s not the IOC’s responsibility to fight the refugee cause. Shining a powerful yet short-lived spotlight on the issue is about as much as they can do.

“Sport has always been a tremendous vehicle for change,” said United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR) spokeswoman, Melissa Flemming.

“It puts refugees on a level playing field. However, major events have a responsibility to provide a legacy for refugees. This applies at grass roots level, too, where sport is a powerful form of escapism for those without a permanent home.

“For us this is not just an important but a ground-breaking Games. The first ever Olympic Refugee Team will highlight the refugee plight and potentially lead to more funding. All 10 athletes have done astonishingly well to even reach Rio. They have overcome many hurdles, but the support can’t stop when the Olympics does, because the the challenges refugees face are growing.”

The five South Sudanese runners on the refugee team know this all too well, and there’s a fear that, by the time that the track and field starts on August 12, South Sudan could be embroiled in a full-blown civil war. Nonetheless, the world’s youngest country still plans to send two athletes to Brazil under its own flag. Nineteen-year-old Margaret Rumat Hassan (400m) and 16-year-old Santino Kenyi (1500m) have been preparing at Juba’s Buluk Athletics Track, but it remains to be seen whether either will board the 35-hour flight.

The refugee athletes from South Sudan have all moved to Kenya. James Nyang Chiengjiek (400m), Yiech Pur Biel, Rose Nathike Lokonyen (800m), Paulo Amotun Lokoro and Anjelina Nada Lohalith (1500m) are part of an athletic scholarship funded by three-time half-marathon champion Tegla Loroupe.

“These are some of the most talented and spirited athletes you will ever meet,” said Loroupe, who was named head of mission for the Refugee Olympic Team. “It hasn’t been an easy road to Rio for any of them and under different circumstances I am sure they would love to be wearing South Sudan’s colours. All five would also give up their places for a world without refugees.”

For 1500-metre specialist Lohalith the Olympics could also prove a means to find her parents. The 21-year-old was separated from them when she was six, but has been told by the UNHCR they may still be alive.

“I have a feeling the Olympics will reunite us,” said Lohalith, who first took up running so she could finish her cow milking chores quicker. “That’s all I want: to imagine, when I enter the Maracanã, that my mother and father recognise me on television and are proud to call me their daughter. If ever there’s a chance of finding them it’s through the Olympics. I have been saving money my whole life so when I finally see them again I can buy my father a house and we can all live together.”

Eight-hundred metre runner Biel is also jetting to Rio in search of someone special. The 21-year-old Manchester United fan is desperate to rub shoulders with 100-metre Olympic champion Usain Bolt in the athletes’ village.

Bolt is acutely aware of South Sudan’s woes after speaking with South Sudanese marathon runner Guor Marial at London 2012. Marial camped outside Bolt’s flat for three hours in order to guarantee a tête-à-tête.

The final two members of the Refugee Olympic Team are both Syrian swimmers. Rami Anis will enter the 100-metre butterfly. The 25-year-old currently trains in Belgium having left warn-torn Aleppo in 2011.

“The situation was very dangerous,” said Anis. “Originally I wanted to stay in Syria because my uncle was the one who got me into swimming, but once the war started I couldn’t compete in any races.”

It was a similar story for the youngest member of the refugee team. Two-hundred metre freestyler Yusra Mardini is just 17 and alongside her sister Sara fled Damascus last August for Berlin, saving countless lives in the process.

The inspiring duo boarded a packed dinghy from Izmir in Turkey to Lesbos in Lebanon. But en route disaster struck: their motor broke, forcing both sisters to power the boat with their legs for most of the arduous four-hour journey. Once safely on land Mardini then caught a train through the Balkans, Hungary and Austria before finally ending up in refugee-friendly Germany.

“The whole journey took us almost 40 days, said Mardini, who represented Syria at the 2012 FINA World Swimming Championships. “My instincts kicked in and I entered survival mode. It was horrible, but nothing compared to what we were escaping.”

Remarkably, the experience left Mardini wanting to take up long-distance swimming, but when she arrived in Berlin Sven Spannekrebs, her coach at, the prestigious Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 swimming club, felt she had more potential as a sprinter.

“You’d think I’d had enough of the water after leaving Syria, but I couldn’t get enough of it. Perhaps initially I was a bit scared to jump in the pool, but to be honest I have always felt calm in water. Even when our boat failed on the way to Greece I didn’t think I would drown.

“At 17 I plan to be competing for at least the next three Olympics. I still feel I am developing and getting quicker every day. Hopefully this is the only Games I am obliged to enter as a refugee.”

Sadly the Refugee Olympic Team is unlikely to be a one-off, but even before the first medal has been won, Rio 2016 has succeeded in getting the world talking about those without homes.

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon argues that “refugees want a flag that waves for their rights”, and the Olympic badge will serve that purpose this summer.

The Refugee Olympic Team may struggle with the burden of being an effective voice for millions, after all, they’re ultimately at the Games as athletes, not politicians. But one thing’s certain: each of the 10 heroes deserve recognition and, who knows, one or two might even take a medal home from Rio, too.