THE first-ever Refugee Olympic Team has arrived in Brazil for the 2016 Olympic Games, and is preparing to compete under the International Olympic Committee (IOC) flag in track and field, judo, and swimming.
Five middle-distance runners from South Sudan — who have been living in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya — were joined by five other athletes from Syria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ethiopia, last Friday, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported.
The team was created by the IOC and UNHRC to draw attention to the scale of the refugee crisis, and to “act as a symbol of hope” world-wide. Its ten athletes, who were selected in June, have all been displaced from their own countries owing to conflict and persecution.
One of them, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 23, will run in the 800 metres. “I feel very excited,” she said. “This is the first chance for the refugees to participate in the Olympics and give us hope, for us to encourage the young generations of fellow refugees who are remaining in the camps to continue their talent.”
Yiech Pur Biel, 21, who will run in the men’s 800 metres, said: “We have come as refugees, we have come as ambassadors, now we are here to show you that we can do everything other human beings can do.”
A swimmer, Yusra Mardini, who fled Syria and has now settled in Germany, said in a press conference on Saturday that the team would represent “the biggest flag — which is all countries”.
The UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said in a statement that the Olympians were “a tribute to the courage and perseverance of all refugees in overcoming adversity, and building a better future for themselves and their families”.
The team was officially created on 3 March by the Executive Board of the IOC (News, 20 May). One of the four British IOC members is Adam Pengilly, who competed at skeleton bobsleigh in the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics. Mr Pengilly, who retired in 2012, is also a Christian. “One of the challenges I found from a Christian perspective is that, around the time of the Olympics, you are so cocooned in your sporting environment. For all of the staff, coaches, and performance directors, this is the most important thing in the world. It was important to me . . . but it wasn’t the most important thing. Remembering the perspective of the Lord, that he had my back whatever, was key. He is always there for me.”
Christians in Sport helps elite athletes cope with the pressure. A spokesman for the charity, Jonny Reid, said that the team supports their faith by reading the Bible and praying together. It has also produced a “Sports Mission Pack” (www.sportsmissionpack.co.uk) to help churches reach sportspeople in their area.
Meanwhile, preparations for the Paralympics, due to take place in Rio in September, are under way. The disability charity CBM is sponsoring the Rwandan women’s sitting volleyball team. It is the first time that the 25 women will have left Rwanda to compete on an international level, and Rwanda is the first African country to send a women’s team to the Paralympics.
The funding from CBM covers training for coaches, referees, and the team, as well as equipment and a training camp. The head coach, Peter Karreman, said that, besides a high standard of competition, the team will have to prepare for “cultural differences [that] will shock” the athletes.