It’s a bold team, considering the climate of politics this year.
Well. It’s a bold team, considering the brash confrontation of reality required for these athletes to simply step onto the stadium’s spongy track there in Rio. After all, beneath whose flag would they walk? And who would fund their sportswear, their tickets? Something says their uniforms weren’t designed by Ralph Lauren.
No, this group is stitched together by something else entirely.
Perhaps it’s hope.
As politics around the world escalate in fear, misinformation, and even xenophobia, some brave individuals are gracing the world stage in the 2016 Olympic Games: The Olympic Refugee Team. These refugees—like refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini, who pushed a boat for three hours and saved 20 lives
—didn’t leverage the best trainers, the top equipment, the elite facilities their home nations could offer. Yet, drawn from four war-torn nations in the worst world refugee crisis since World War II, these ten audacious souls do hold in common a secret weapon: They have already conquered.
For them, the road to Rio was paved with tragedy and profound loss. Remarkably few flee their country, families, and homes—with little but a hastily-filled suitcase and furtive, panicked glances—because it’s their choice. They certainly don’t flee with a desire to inflict harm. They flee because the wake behind them and before them was simply too much. Because the cost and grief were simply overpowering.
Ten refugee athletes will act as a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide and bring global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis when they take part in the Olympic Games Rio 2016 this summer. The athletes will compete for the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) – the first of its kind – and march with the Olympic flag immediately before host nation Brazil at the Opening Ceremony.
And get this: all but two of these refugee athletes are from countries represented at Refuge and Hope, where I teach!
As North Americans, many of us innately cheer for the underdog in any story. We’ve been corn-fed on stories of conquering, of the ordinary-turned-extraordinary; of dreams. Perhaps that’s why I’m inspired by my students, sitting in neat lines in class. Something in me, though I am the teacher, visualizes so clearly that they are in many respects my superiors. There is something I will never know, as I climb back into my air-conditioned minivan to bounce over Kampala’s jarring potholes, about overcoming; about strength. If we were all suddenly without food, they would far outlast me. And I suppose I shouldn’t mention my irritation over last night’s power outage, considering that even in Uganda—largely more developed than their countries—only 15% of homes possess electricity.
I love the words of International Olympic Committee President, Thomas Bach:
These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem. We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the world. 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 the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. 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. (emphasis added)
This August, as the Olympic Refugee Team leverages its best, pray for refugees around the world as they seek asylum. Unlike this team, many of them don’t yet hold a vision for any sort of victory. Most of them are simply praying for safety; survival.
At the refugee center, I see small miracles even in our sports teams. Team members whose countries or tribes may oppose one another in their home countries are now slapping sweaty backs in good humor. They’re learning to work together. On the court and sitting in a classroom, they’re learning that a worldwide culture of peace—of overcoming—begins here. In us.
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