ATHLETES of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team have returned to their “host environments”, and are continuing to train and compete after the Olympic Games in Brazil, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said. But their place at the Tokyo Olympics in four years has yet to be decided.
Ten refugee athletes competed in Rio de Janeiro in August under the IOC flag, in track and field, judo, and swimming (News, 5 August). The team was created by the IOC and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to draw attention to the scale of the refugee crisis, and to “act as a symbol of hope” worldwide (News, 20 May).
Five middle-distance runners from South Sudan, who had been living in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, and five other athletes from Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ethiopia, were selected in June. All had been displaced from their own countries owing to conflict and persecution.
A IOC spokesperson said last week: “Currently, all the athletes who were part of the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio have returned to their host environments, and are continuing with their day to day routines — training, school, competitions etc. — depending on his or her plans for the future.”
An Olympic swimmer from Syria, Rami Anis, is training in Belgium, and is due to compete in the next World Championships, in London. A judoka from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Popole Misenga, is training in Brazil for the national championships.
“They all remain full-time athletes, and in addition are taking language classes to better integrate in their host country,” the spokesperson said. “Some go to school, some to university, and some are doing vocational training.”
But at a press conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, this month, the IOC said that the future of the Refugee Team at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 was undecided. “The team in Rio was to remind the world of the situation [of refugees],” the IOC deputy director general for relations with the Olympic Movement, Pere Miro, told reporters.
“To have a team in Rio was not an objective in itself, but a means to put this problem to the world. We will now go step by step.” The IOC spokesperson said: “In an ideal world, we would not need to have a Refugee Team at the Games.”
The refugee athletes are being supported by Olympic Solidarity, an IOC programme commissioned to assist the National Olympic Committees (NOC) across the world, in particular athletes from poorer nations.
A new four-year, £400-million funding plan for poorer nations, due to start next year, was announced by the IOC in November. The cash represents a 16 per cent increase on the last four-year Olympic Solidarity plan. “This increase shows that the athletes remain at the heart of all our activity,” Mr Miro said.
There are two new plans among the 21 programmes covered by the funding: “Refugee athlete support”, and “Athletes’ career transition”. The former is to help NOCs identify talented individuals who have sought refuge in their countries, and to prepare them for international competition.
In Rio, there were 815 recipients of Olympic scholarships, representing 171 different countries, who won a total of 101 medals.