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At Olympics, a team of refugee athletes is warmly embraced

Swimmer Yusra Mardini (center), part of the 10-member Refugee Team, fled Syria and had to swim for her life.jae c. yong/AP

RIO DE JANEIRO — There is one team competing at the Summer Olympics that doesn’t represent a nation or a territory. Its athletes compete in the name of something greater that knows no borders and belongs exclusively to no banner: hope for a better life.

The members of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) already had made history before they set foot inside Maracana Stadium for the Opening Ceremony Friday night. They left behind their families, their countries, and life-threatening circumstances because they had no choice.

If the Dallas Cowboys are “America’s Team” in football, then the refugee team is “Humanity’s Team” at these Olympics.


Created by the International Olympic Committee in response to the worldwide refugee crisis, the 10-member squad has been one of the most popular teams here. They’ve been mobbed by media like the Beatles and showered with cheers and compassion from their fellow athletes and Rio workers.

Forget Zika and bacteria-laden water. The biggest health risk to the Refugee Team is the media.

They were nearly trampled by voracious media members Wednesday night at their welcoming ceremony in the Olympic village. The team’s press manager, Sophie Edington, had to physically block one overzealous television reporter. She has been inundated with so many media requests she had to put up her out-of-office e-mail reply.

It’s hard not to juxtapose the overwhelming acceptance and adulation the ROT has received with the demonization and denial that refugees, particularly from Syria, have been confronted with in Europe and the United States.

Two members of the team, which comprises six men and four women from four countries, are Syrian refugees: swimmers Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis.

“We are representing millions of refugees all over the world and showing that refugees can do something,” said 400-meter runner James Nyang Chiengjiek, who fled South Sudan at age 13 rather than be conscripted as a child soldier. “I am so happy that the president of the IOC gave us this chance. He did not allow politics to come into sport. May God reward him.”


The United Nations Refugee Agency reported in June that wars and persecutions had displaced 65.3 million people at the end of 2015.

The 10 athletes were selected from a pool of 43 candidates, winnowed from almost 1,000. They were assessed on sporting level, UN refugee status, and personal background.

The Refugee Team athletes wear black warm-ups with the “ROT” name and will compete under the five-ringed Olympic flag. The athletes originally hail from South Sudan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia.

“We do not speak the same language,” said Mardini. “We are from different countries. But the Olympic flag unites all of us together and now we are representing 60 million around the world.

“We want to do our best to show everyone that we can do everything we can for being good athletes and good people.”

Swimming at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio in the 100-meter butterfly and freestyle events is nothing after the 18-year-old Mardini had to literally swim for her life to gain asylum in Germany.

A year ago at this time, she fled Syria with her older sister, Sarah.

They reached Turkey, and then with a group of more than two dozen refugees they hired smugglers to try to get them to Greece. The smugglers packed the group onto a small dinghy. But the motor on the boat broke, dooming their voyage.


Mardini, who had been a competitive swimmer for Syria, and her sister were two of the few people who could swim. Aided by two others, they dived in, grabbed a rope, and tugged the boat in the rough waters of the northern Aegean Sea for 3½ hours to the Greek island of Lesbos, off the coast of Turkey.

Yiech Pur Biel, an 800-meter runner from South Sudan, also had a harrowing path to Olympus. He left South Sudan in 2005, when his village came under attack.

“They came and attacked our village,” said Biel. “We had to lie in the bushes for three days when we could only live from fruit and leaves. I was 10. I feared I might be killed.”

These stories put the stakes of the Olympic Games into proper perspective.

They also explain the sheer joy that the refugee athletes have partaking in the Olympic experience.

There was wild cheering from Olympic representatives and the other delegations when the team was introduced at the Olympic village welcome ceremony.

While the flags of nations such as Nepal and Paraguay were raised, the refugee team saw the Olympic flag raised in their honor.

They stood at attention as the Olympic Hymn was played in lieu of a national anthem, some of them pumping fists.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, a few members of the ROT danced jubilantly with a Brazilian artistic dance troupe that had been part of the welcome ceremony.


It was a preview of the pomp, circumstance, and universal acceptance the Refugee Team would be swathed in at the Opening Ceremony.

Led by flag bearer Rose Nathike Lokonyen, a women’s 800-meter runner from South Sudan, the Refugee Olympic Team marched into the Maracanã Stadium under the Olympic flag at 10:52 p.m. Rio time. The penultimate team in the parade of nations at an awe-inspiring and iridescent Opening Ceremony. Only host Brazil had to wait longer and got a more heartfelt ovation.

While thrilled to be embraced at the Games, these athletes aspire to be residents, not refugees.

“We represent people who are oppressed, who are living with injustice, and we really hope that wars will end soon,” said Anis, the male Syrian swimmer.

“We want an end to the killings and the massacres so we can compete under our national flag. There is nothing more important to us than our homelands.

“I hope that by the time of the next Olympics in 2020, there will be no refugees and we will be able to compete under our own flag.”

For now, they compete under the flag of humanity and hope.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.