Rio 2016 is the first ever games to have a team made up entirely of refugees. Their inclusion – their celebration – not only makes history, it is desperately important for four reasons.
The Olympic brand is somewhat tarnished. The homophobic undercurrent of the Sochi winter games and the human rights concerns of Beijing are cases in point, not to mention the rampant corruption of the IOC. In these times of increasing awareness of global inequity, the games cost mammoth amounts of money, only for the stadiums and athlete villages to then languish, rarely used again. Then there are those pesky drug scandals.
In addition to the (many, tedious, disappointing) doping revelations, this year’s Olympics have been overshadowed by fears associated with poverty and lawlessness. The Australian competitors were vocal when their accommodations were sub-par; they even had laptops stolen from their rooms in the Olympic Village. There were fears that sailing and other water sports venues were so polluted that falling in would be a health hazard. This week, the diving and water polo pools turned green. The potential for mugging and other crime against athletes and spectators has also been debated, as Rio is famous for epitomizing the gap between the rich and poor. Numbers have been disappointing.
Despite these concerns the 2016 games has made history in more ways than the mere crushing of world records. The Rio Olympics have gone above and beyond with their inclusivity: The formation of the Olympic Refugee Team (ORT) is awesome.
The ORT is not about sponsorship deals. It’s not about national pride. It’s not even (so far) about winning medals. It’s about bringing out and celebrating the best in humanity. The ORT may not be at the very pinnacle of their fields (given their presumed lack of training opportunity, how could they be expected to be?) but their dedication to, and love of, sport in the face of adversity is truly inspirational. As Yiech Pur Biel (ORT team member, athletics, originally from South Sudan) told the BBC “Sport gave me a sense of belonging. Even if I don’t get gold or silver, I will show the world that, as a refugee, you can do something.”
What is the point of the Olympics? It’s about more than the individuals competing, more than national pride. It’s about seeing people striving to be the best that they can be, to have long, lonesome hours in the pool/on the track/on the field be recognized, to pay off, even if it doesn’t end on the medal podium. It’s about their stories. It’s a smash-up of cultures, all competing on an even playing field, all reaching for the same goal, and in doing so, transcending division. It’s, as I’ve been assured by an Olympics fanatic, “everyone together”. The ORT embodies this spirit.
We are all barracking for our national teams, but the ORT is elevated past that, as they belong to no-one, and everyone. Being an International Olympic Committee initiative reinforces that they represent all of us. That the IOC put time, resources and it’s reputation into fielding this team at a time of such crisis for refugees helps to lift the games up out of the scandals in which they often seem mired.
Walking out into Rio’s opening ceremony to thunderous applause, the ORT reminded us that they are people with hopes, dreams and goals. Their stories and abilities humanize not only them, but the millions of others waiting for safety around the world.
There have been other great Olympic moments this year. Who didn’t smile when they saw the North Korea – South Korea gymnastics selfie? Who didn’t get a teary eye when Fiji won their first ever Olympic medal in the Rugby Sevens? Who didn’t do a thoughtful double take at seeing the hijab/bikini beach volleyball photo? But this year, it’s been the personal stories behind the ORT athletes that demonstrate best the Olympic spirit.
The team goes beyond feeling warm and fuzzy about another country’s athletes. The dominant image of refugees today is of “illegal migrants”, streaming into rich countries where they may or may not abuse local women and unleash terrorist violence. By competing and sharing their stories with the world, the team re-frames the dominant narrative. It showcases the positive: skill, dedication and raw talent. They have collectively suffered through more adversity than any other team in the games, but they are still competing.
It is a powerful message. It’s not just targeted at us, wearing a groove into our couches with our eyes glued to the Olympic coverage on our flatscreens. We might have the democratic power to put pressure on our governments and improve refugee policy, but we’re not really the core audience. The Olympic Refugee Team is really for the other refugees scattered around the world; the ones who (probably) don’t have elite sporting prowess, who won’t be celebrated with a standing ovation when walking into a room.
So often told they are a burden on their host countries and mistrusted as potential rapists or thieves, the Olympic Refugee Team reminds them as well as us that they are full of interrupted potential. As put by Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach “This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world…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.”
Amen to that. They are an enrichment and have much to contribute. Sure, so far they’re not winning medals in Rio, but who the hell cares?!
Refugees have been in and out of the headlines for years. They are nothing new. From the Vietnamese and Salvadorans to the Afghanis and Iraqis, war always generates people in need of protection. What is new is that we can now see the waves of desperation arriving on leaky boats in overwhelmed southern Europe in real time, on our omnipresent screens.
And then we get bored.
In this era of facebook feeds, the 24-hour news cycle and Pokemon Go, people don’t seem to have the brainwidth to spend the time trying to understand complex issues. The desperate masses fade from the headlines, and are easily demonized by Presidential aspirants with horrendous blond comb-overs.
The history-making Olympic Refugee Team helps to change that. It keeps the journey of, and constant dangers facing, refugees in the headlines, but this time it’s a positive story. It captures the world’s attention because it is fresh. When refugee advocates are trying to negotiate solutions for the millions of people fleeing persecution across the globe, any chance to create empathy and understanding is worth much more than gold medals.
Which brings me to my last point. Refugees need sympathetic ears. They need us to see them as human beings fleeing insurmountable danger, rather than drains on and potential risks to our societies. They need us to be interested.
But it can’t just be political junkies and human rights wonks who listen. It can’t just be readers of highbrow magazines, and listeners of global issues podcasts. Everyone needs to get involved. The Olympics brings the plight of refugees to a whole new audience. This is not to disparage sports fans. The summer games has a wider, more diverse audience than PBS. It’s wonderful that the IOC is taking advantage of that, and using the Olympics as a platform for good.
None of us are too far away from refugee status ourselves. All jokes about a Trump presidency and fleeing to Canada aside, Syria, for example, was a modern, developed, beautiful country just a few short years ago. The inclusion of the Olympic Refugee Team in this year’s games highlights and celebrates what we all have in common – our humanity – and what we all aspire to – the fulfillment of our dreams.