Ten refugee athletes from Africa and the Middle East were selected today to compete under the Olympic flag at the Rio de Janeiro Games in what the IOC said represents a “symbol of hope” for migrants and refugees around the world. The members of the first ever Olympic refugee team include athletes from South Sudan, Syria, Congo and Ethiopia who will compete in track and field, swimming and judo.
The team of six men and four women will march together behind the Olympic flag in the opening ceremony in Rio’s Maracana stadium on Aug. 5.
“We’re convinced this refugee Olympic team can send a symbol of hope to all refugees in the world,” IOC President Thomas Bach said at the close of a three-day IOC executive board meeting in Lausanne. “It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.”
The team, selected from an initial pool of 43 candidates, will be overseen by Kenya’s Tegla Loroupe, the former women’s marathon world record-holder. Five coaches and five other team officials were also named by the IOC.
Officially called the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), the athletes will walk into the opening ceremony just ahead of the huge team from Brazil, the host nation that marches last in the parade of athletes from more than 200 countries.
“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem,” Bach said. “We will offer them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the athletes of the world. ... 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.”
The plan was first announced by the IOC at the United Nations last October amid the influx of migrants and refugees from armed conflicts in Syria, Africa, South Asia and other regions.
The team includes Syrian swimmers Yusra Mardini, now based in Germany, and Rami Anis, living in Belgium; South Sudanese runners Yiech Pur Biel (800 meters), James Nyang Chiengjiek (400), Anjelina Nada Lohalith (1,500), Rose Nathike Lokonyen (800) and Paulo Amotun Lokoro (1,500); Congolese judo athletes Yolande Bukasa Mabika (70-kilogram category) and Popole Misenga (90 kgs), both living and training in Brazil; and Ethiopian marathon runner Yonas Kinde, now based in Luxembourg.
They were then taken to a training camp near Nairobi run by Loroupe.
Mardini, the teenage Syrian swimmer, has generated heavy media attention. She and her sister, Sarah, were on a flimsy inflatable boat with other refugees making the perilous trip from Turkey to Greece when the dinghy started taking on water. While most of the refugees couldn’t swim, the Mardini sisters jumped into the water and helped guide the boat to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The sisters eventually made it to Germany, where they began training at a swimming pool in Berlin near their refugee center.