This Summer, Refugees Will Compete at the Olympics for the First Time Ever

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For the first time in the history of the Olympic games, a small team of international refugees with no home country will compete under the Olympic flag at Rio 2016. Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), confirmed it yesterday during a visit to the Open Reception Centre for refugees in Athens.

Bach traveled to Athens to witness how humanitarian aid efforts (IOC’s $2 million emergency funds) have been used to help provide sporting facilities at camps, particularly in Greece, where a massive influx of refugees and migrants have arrived after fleeing their homelands.

“By providing these sports facilities we want to give some hope to these refugees,” Bach said. “We want to give them at least a little joy of life in these difficult circumstances. We want to give them the opportunity to mix with each other. Here you saw refugees from Syria, from Mali, from Sierra Leone, from Iran, from Iraq, all playing together with us, and really showing a small Olympic community here in this camp.”

“Sport can heal many wounds,” Honorary IOC President Jacques Rogge added. “Sport can bring them hope, can help to forge their ideas and to integrate in society. Ultimately it brings them hopes and dreams. Sport is not the solution but it can make a great contribution.” A great contribution, indeed; it has the power to highlight the perhaps less-emphasized side of refugee stories – that of strength, determination, and will to succeed in the face of immense adversity.

It’s often said that sport is a universal language. A cliché, you might say, but it is true that sport has the potential to offer a safe space to build social capital, which for refugees in particular can allow for acclimation to new and unfamiliar surroundings and even healing. That opportunity for healing makes how we (as an international sporting community) decide to respond to this crisis that much more important. Do we close our hearts and ignore essential obligations to help? Or do we keep sight of what’s really important? The IOC’s decision to allow five to 10 people living in forced displacement to compete at Rio 2016 is a promising and positive sign.

The flame for the Games will pass through a refugee camp in Athens with one refugee among the torch bearers before leaving for Brazil 12 days later. On May 3, it will start its 100-day cross-country relay. In terms of the refugees set to participate, three possible competitors have already been named: a female Syrian swimmer now in Germany, a male Congolese judoka in Brazil, and a female Iranian taekwondo fighter in Belgium.