The Summer Olympics will feature 206 teams of athletes from specific countries. And for the first time ever, this month’s Games in Rio will feature another team of athletes that comes from no nation in particular and with no historical precedent.
For the first time, a Refugee Olympic Team will participate in the Olympics. The R.O.T., as the International Olympic Committee abbreviates it, includes 10 athletes, across four sports, from four countries in the Middle East and Africa.
The R.O.T. arrives at the Olympics at a particularly troubling time. The civil war in Syria has been driving an outright refugee crisis in Europe. The United Nations Refugee Agency says there are 4.8 million Syrian refugees, plus an estimated 8.7 million people displaced inside Syria this year. Its count of refugees and asylum-seekers from South Sudan is 850,000. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it is more than 384,000 refugees and more than a million internally displaced persons. There are more than 700,000 Ethiopian refugees. This is just a sampling.
If there is light at the end of that darkness, the 10 athletes competing for the R.O.T. this month are a beacon. Each has escaped one of the war-torn countries mentioned above, and each now gets a turn on sport’s biggest stage.
As the European refugee crisis took hold last summer, the IOC created a $2 million emergency fund to help the National Olympic Committees in various countries (mostly in Europe) integrate athletes from the ravaged states.
These are the athletes. We’ll supplement this roster with snippets from the inspiring stories they’ve passed on to the UN Refugee Agency:
From South Sudan
Rose Nathike Lokonyen, a runner supported by Kenya
James Nyang Chiengjiek, a runner supported by Kenya
Angelina Nada Lohalith, a runner supported by Kenya
Paulo Amotun Lokoro, a runner supported by Kenya
Yiech Pur Biel, a runner supported by Kenya
Kenya’s NOC stepped up to support the South Sudanese half of the R.O.T. Lokonyen, 23, will be the R.O.T.’s flag-bearer in the Olympic Parade of Nations on Friday night.
Chiengjiek, 28, wants to inspire refugees to greatness. "Maybe among them are athletes with talent, but who did not yet get any opportunities. We are refugees like that, and some of us have been given this opportunity to go to Rio," he says. "We have to look back and see where our brothers and sisters are, so if one of them also has talent, we can bring them to train with us and also make their lives better."
Lohalith, 21, has had no contact with her parents since she was 6 years old. War destroyed her village and she was forced to flee. Now, she’ll run a 1500m race in the Olympics for the R.O.T.
Lokoro, 24, grew up herding cattle in Sudan but had to leave as war spilled toward him. He didn’t even have running shoes before setting up shop in Kenya, but now he’s an Olympian. He’ll also run a 1500m.
Biel, 21, spent a full 10 years in a refugee camp after fleeing civil war. He’s running in an 800m in Rio, having trained and the camp for years and honed his craft in Kenya.
Rami Anis, a swimmer supported by Belgium
Yusra Mardini, a swimmer supported by Germany
According to the UNHCR, Anis, 25 started swimming as a 14-year-old in Aleppo. Bombings and kidnappings eventually became a fixture there, and his family sent him to Turkey to live with an older brother who had been studying there. "The bag I took had two jackets, two t-shirts, two trousers – it was a small bag," Rami told the UNHCR. "I thought I would be in Turkey for a couple of months and then return to my country."
Mardini, 18, has a remarkable past even by the high standards of the R.O.T. She fled Syria on a boat and, when that boat stalled off the Turkish coast, jumped into the water and literally pushed it toward safety and freedom. Here’s a video:
From the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Popole Misenga, a judoka supported by Brazil
Yolande Bukasa Mabika, a judoka supported by Brazil
The two judokas have both found pre-Olympic homes in Brazil. But each fled terror in the D.R.C. in order to get there.
Fighting in the eastern half of the country split Mabika, 28, off from her parents when she was young, and she learned judo in a camp for IDPs in the capital, Kinshasa. "Judo never gave me money," she says, "but it gave me a strong heart."
Misenga, 28, also fled flighting. He was stranded in a forest for eight days as a child and then taken to Kinshasa, where he learned judo. He’s settled now in Brazil, and he says he wants to medal for refugees everywhere. "I will win a medal," he says, "and will dedicate it to all refugees."
Yonas Kinde, a marathoner supported by Luxembourg
Kinde, 36, has spent the last five years in Luxembourg. He calls his home nation of Ethiopia "very dangerous for my life," and he also sees the Olympics as a chance to send a message on behalf of refugees the world over. "Of course we have problems – we are refugees – but we can do everything in the refugee camp, so it will help refugee athletes," he says.