As Usain Bolt wins his 9th gold medal, the Ryan Lochte controversy continues to make news, and Michael Phelps enters the history books, it can be easy to forget the 10 individuals who courageously stepped onto the world stage to represent the 15.2 million refugees worldwide for the first time in Olympic history. In March this year the International Olympic Committee, in response to the world’s refugee crisis, endorsed the proposal for a refugee team for the Rio Olympics.
Whilst the Olympic games can be competitive and pit countries against each other, its true goal as stated by the International Olympic Committee is to “contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind, in the spirit of friendship, solidarity, and fair play.” It is an event that is meant to unite the world and promote peace and fairness. There were numerous examples of this throughout the games. A South Korean gymnast taking a selfie with her North Korean rival made headlines across the world, and two athletes from New Zealand and America helped each other over the finish line in the 1500m run. These moments of Olympic spirit dominated the news around the world.
However, there was one story that did not receive the same attention in Australia as it did elsewhere. This was the extraordinary story and achievement of Yusra Mardini. Now a resident of Berlin, Yusra fled her home in Syria at the age of 17 in search of a safe home. Yusra trained as a swimmer in Syria and continued as the civil war began. She describes training in facilities with holes in the roof from bombs and gunshot riddled walls. When she left her home, she and 18 other refugees boarded a boat that was only meant for 6 people. During the voyage the motor broke down, leaving them stranded at sea with no means to fix it. Yusra, her sister, and two others jumped into the ocean and pushed the boat for over 3 hours until they reached dry land. She went on to train in Germany for the Olympics, and in Rio she came first in her heat for the 100m butterfly. Despite limited resources and extreme hardship, Yusra showed the world the talent that refugees can possess. She demonstrated that refugees are simply people, and that the stigma surrounding them is unfounded.
Each of the ten athletes representing the 15.2 million refugees around the world have a unique and incredible story just like Yusra’s. Their achievements at the Olympic Games demonstrated the talent refugees can possess, and has challenged the negative perceptions many people have about them. It is unfortunate that the Australian news did not cover the stories and achievements of the refugee athletes as extensively as the rest of the world. However, the refugee team may continue on to Tokyo in 2020, and possibly even make an appearance at the Commonwealth Games in 2018. While it would be wonderful to continue to showcase the talent of the refugee community at the Olympic Games, ideally such a team would not be needed. If the world were to adopt more humane refugee policies, find a way to end conflicts peacefully, and increase refugee intakes, refugee athletes would be able to compete for their new countries (or home countries if it were safe to do so).
Vijhai Utheyan, BCrim&CJ (UNSW)