The Courage of the Refugee Olympic Team

September 14th, 2016

By: Senator Ratna Omidvar, Ontario, Senate of Canada


Every four years, audiences in Canada and across the globe turn their eyes towards the Summer Olympic Games. Thousands of spectators travel to watch the games live and billions more watch at home. Over the past month, the world’s attention has focused on Brazil and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Audiences have thrilled to the spectacle of the world’s finest athletes at the pinnacle of competition, representing over 200 nations across the globe. As we welcome our Canadian athletes home from Rio and celebrate their tremendous success, we also reflect on another team of remarkable competitors: the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team.

This year, 10 refugees from four countries — the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Syria — were selected from a shortlist of 43 displaced athletes worldwide to compete under the Olympic flag. The team included two swimmers, two judokas, a marathoner and five medium-distance runners. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) worked together to support the team as part of an effort to raise awareness of the refugee crisis and celebrate the courage and perseverance of all refugees.

What makes the Olympic Games so captivating are the individual human stories that play out over the course of competition. The athletes of the Refugee Olympic Team provided a uniquely compelling narrative to this human drama. Perhaps the most obvious example is that of 18 year old Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini. While fleeing Syria via Turkey in 2015, she found herself stranded in the Aegean Sea along with 19 other refugees, in a boat whose engine had stopped; she responded by jumping into the water, along with her sister, and pushing the boat for more than three hours until they reached safety in Greece. Now living in Germany, Mardini draws inspiration from her experience: “I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that, after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days.”

Mardini’s story, along with the stories of the other refugee Olympians, are all part of a greater narrative: refugees have the same aspirations and the same potential as citizens of any country, and can achieve great things only if given the opportunity. Sadly, even as we cheered on these athletes we were also aware of the absences — the athletes who didn’t make it to safety, such as Samia Omar, the 21 year old Somali runner who drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2012. Both the triumphs and the tragedies are symbolic of a crisis which affects not just elite athletes, but an entire generation of human talent: doctors, artists, teachers, entrepreneurs, political leaders, all lost to their communities of origin.

While none of the Refugee Olympic Team reached the podium, they captured the attention of athletes and spectators around the world. They received a thunderous standing ovation at the opening ceremonies, and world leaders such as Pope Francis and U.S. President Barack Obama sent messages of support and encouragement. In his closing address, IOC President Thomas Bach said: “You have inspired us with your talent and human spirit. You are a symbol of hope to the millions of refugees in the world. We will continue to stay at your side after these Olympic Games.”

As the 2016 Rio Olympics pass into memory, the challenge is to ensure that this support doesn’t fade away. Let us take renewed inspiration from these refugee Olympians, and work to ensure that all of the world’s displaced people are given a chance to reach their potential and make successful lives for themselves.

This Opinion originally appeared on SenCAPlus, The Senate of Canada

omidvar     The Honourable Ratna Omidvar, C.M., O.Ont.
     Senator, The Senate of Canada

Ratna is the founding Executive Director and currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Global Diversity Exchange (GDX), Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University, and an internationally recognized expert on migration, diversity and inclusion. In April 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed Ratna to the Senate of Canada as an independent Senator representing Ontario.

More Stories - From September 2016

Making Protection Temporary? Bad Idea for Cities

Thomas Jezequel, EUROCITIES, argues that making protection temporary will be “detrimental to integration and social cohesion in cities”:  To quote the article kicking off this debate,...

Migration Governance Index

In May 2016, the International Organization for Migration...
Looking for Past Issues?

More »Upcoming Webinars

    • No events.