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The Refugee Olympic Team is a great story, and in an ideal world it wouldn't exist

The Refugee Olympic Team is one of the Rio Olympics' biggest feel-good stories, but that shouldn't cloud the deeper reasons why the athletes are there.

Olympic refugee team swimmer Rami Anis trains at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Rami Anis hadn’t been listening to his coach. He promised Carine Verbauwen that he wouldn’t be partaking in Ramadan, but she could tell by the way he loped into a 6 a.m. workout that he had been up in the middle of the night with his father and brother.

"I think that he's feeling a bit guilty in not participating and he eats with them in the night," Verbauwen says. "But if you have to be at workout at 6 o'clock in the morning, you don't have enough rest. I always say to him, 'please eat, please rest.' But he has to do it."

Anis had long been an excellent swimmer, but he hadn’t been training as an Olympic swimmer for very long. In March he was informed that he was one of 43 athletes being considered for the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team. On June 3, he was named one of the 10 who would go to Rio. Month-long Ramadan started June 5.

"He's a kind boy," Verbauwen says. "He's hard-headed, but he's a kind boy."

The relationship between Verbauwen and Anis began transactionally — Verbauwen met him outside her swimming club in Ghent, Belgium, and gave him exactly 30 minutes of her time — and has stayed rooted in give-and-take ever since though it could be called something like tough love now.

Verbauwen, a former Belgian Olympian who finished fifth in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1980 games, met Anis last October after her sister called and told her that a refugee of the Syrian Civil War was waiting in front of the club with his father, brother and uncle. She didn’t expect what happened next, assuming she had any expectations at all.

"His uncle said, 'Okay, Rami wants to swim here, but can you tell me how much he will earn every month for swimming with you?'" Verbauwen remembers. "So my first impression was stepping back two steps and saying, 'Whoa, swimming here you have to pay to swim, not get paid to swim.'"

Verbauwen said she could give him free tuition and help him find an apartment, but Anis hoped his swimming prowess could earn a living for himself and his family. When Verbauwen told him it couldn’t, not in Belgium at least, he went to Germany where he thought there was money to be made. In February, Verbauwen received another call, this time from Anis’ uncle informing her that Anis was back in Belgium at a reception center for asylum seekers.

Anis had been rebuffed in Germany, too, and now wanted to take Verbauwen up on her offer. It was the best he had, even though the club in Ghent was six hours away from the center in Florennes. One club was closer, but it would have cost €200 a month to train there. Every day for their first two weeks, Anis had to make a six-hour trek for each two-hour training session. The first Dutch phrase he learned was "I am tired."

* * *

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach announced that there would be a team of refugees at the 2016 Rio Olympics around the same time Verbauwen met Anis. The team’s actual genesis was arguably 20 years earlier, however, when Claude Marshall volunteered to do, well, something for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In 1993, Marshall retired as the European vice president for an international advertising and public relations firm. He was once a refugee himself, escaping Nazi Germany with his parents in 1936 when he was four years old. He approached the UNHCR after meeting then-high commissioner Sadako Ogata at a dinner. When the organization asked him how much he wanted to get paid, he said zero, but only if he didn’t have to treat his role as a 9-to-6 job.

"When the sun is shining like it is today in Geneva at four o'clock, I'll go play tennis," Marshall says. "With that proviso, I began to work bénévole, as you say."

But Marshall needed a project that a corporation might fund for the UNHCR. "They looked at me and said, 'Well, Marshall, what about sports?'" Marshall laughs, "And I said, 'Well what about it?'" With that, he became the agency’s unofficial sports coordinator, a post he has held ever since, working mostly on his own with almost no budget.

In 1994 or 1995, Ogata nudged Marshall to call the IOC as one of his first big tasks, so he did, and facilitated a partnership that has endured and provided financing and material for sports programs in refugee camps around the world.

In 2014, well before the peak of the migrant crisis, Bach approached Marshall to see if he had a way of identifying high-level athletes in refugee camps. Marshall didn’t think the endeavor had anything to do with a refugee team. The IOC told him it was looking for people who could train young refugee athletes for future Olympic games. It made sense. According to the UNHCR, nearly 50 percent of the refugee population was under 18 years old as of 2013.

The UNHCR came up with 121 athletes’ names by asking local camp representatives to hand out surveys asking refugees what sports they played in their countries of origin, at what level, and how they fared in competition. By the end of 2014, that list was whittled down twice, to 12 names and then to zero. The IOC worked closely with National Olympic Committees and sports federations to vet the accomplishments of each athlete, looking for Olympic potential. It found none, but, now wiser, the IOC started its search again by changing one of the criteria.

"Which was interesting to me, and it still is, because it's one of the remarkable events of this refugee team," Marshall says.

Instead of holding refugees to the athletic standards of their countries of origin, the IOC started looking for athletes who were the best among fellow refugees. It targeted Kakuma and Dadaab, two refugee camps in Kenya with a combined population of more than 500,000 people. Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, holds roughly 330,000 on its own, primarily Somalis who fled a civil war in the south of their country.

The IOC had a world class scout in Tegla Loroupe, who competed in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympics for Kenya and was one of the best marathon runners in the world during the 1990s. Working with the UNHCR last August, she quietly conducted 10-kilometer races at Kakuma and Dadaab to determine the fastest athletes, and identified 30 athletes to take back to her training center in Nairobi, making up the majority of the IOC’s initial list of 43.

A little on the haphazard side, but being a refugee is a little on the haphazard side. -UNHCR's Claude Marshall

The remaining 13 athletes were people like Anis who escaped violence and, by their own strength, intuition and luck, connected with trainers in better-off places. To say that the Refugee Olympic Team is made up of the absolute best refugee athletes in the world might be a stretch. At the end of 2015, the UNHCR estimated there were 21.3 million refugees in the world and the IOC and UNHCR, even if they had unlimited resources, couldn’t possibly comb through that many people.

They did the best they could and wound up with a team of 10 athletes out of the initial 43. Five were runners who had been among Loroupe’s group of 30, and five were athletes who hadn’t been in camps, including two judokas who had taken asylum in Brazil, an Ethiopian marathoner supported by Luxembourg, and two Syrian swimmers in Anis and 18-year-old Yusra Mardini.

"A little on the haphazard side, but being a refugee is a little on the haphazard side," Marshall says. "You don't know when you gotta run."

* * *

Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis chat while training at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium.
Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis have a natural rivalry as competitors on the Refugee Olympic Team.
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Games have started and the horror stories that have been told about Rio’s poverty, corruption and polluted waterways have largely been pushed out of mind by athletic performances. The refugee team will be one of the biggest feel-good stories of the Olympics, and in a twist of irony those stories may obscure their circumstances. Every one of the 10 members of the Refugee Olympic Team is in Rio because of deep-seeded problems with no obvious solutions. Loroupe’s group of 30 runners were plucked directly out of miserable conditions, with only five making the team.

"And misery is right," Marshall says. "They live in huts that they probably had to help build themselves. They don't eat what you would call a real fit-for-training meal in the camp. They sleep with the rest of the family in a one-room hut. In both of these camps they are probably mud huts with thatched roofs."

Anis fled his hometown of Aleppo in 2011 to escape bombings and kidnappings and went to Istanbul to stay with his older brother. He could train there, but he couldn’t compete until he got on a dinghy aimed for Greece last October. He eventually landed in Belgium because that’s where his uncle lives.

Happenstance played a large role in getting the 10 to Rio, but it wasn’t positive happenstance. "Lucky" isn’t the right word to use, though the team seems like charity to some, and that bothers Verbauwen.

"The comment I receive from several people, 'He's not with the best so why bother?'" Verbauwen laughs. "Or the coaches that are there, they say, 'We have to do a lot, and you can just go with one swimmer who doesn't even have the time limits of a Belgian swimmer,' but I don't care.

"But he will not be in a semifinal, that's the truth."

Verbauwen says Anis will try to break 54.5 seconds in his events, the 100-meter butterfly and freestyle, a time that would have made him one of the slower swimmers at the 2012 games ("slow," of course, being a relative term). Both Verbauwen and Anis know that his actual performance means little to anyone else, however. Just making the team brought its members overnight notoriety.

For example, Anis told Verbauwen a story about meeting Michael Phelps and how he was turned down for an autograph. He couldn’t understand why.

"‘Now,'" he told Verbauwen, "'I do understand Michael Phelps.' So just to say that he is really tired of the media attention and everyone who wants to see him for photographs, and a photo session and film sessions, he's a bit fed up with it."

Suddenly, Anis has had to juggle his days around training, media requests, and intensive Dutch lessons and exams that will help him get a job after the Olympics. Then there were the questions. Reporters, curious as they are, wanted him to speak about the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Anis wouldn’t.

"Most of all, he's afraid," Verbauwen says. "He still has family living in Aleppo. He already has ignored orders from the Syrian government and the Syrian federation of swimming. They ordered him to come back when he went to Turkey, and he refused, so they cut him off of all swimming events as well. And if he turns against Bashar [al-Assad, Syrian president], he's afraid that they'll retaliate against his family."

It’s good that the Olympics is hosting a team of refugees, but in an ideal world, the team wouldn’t be able to exist at all. Marshall was recently asked what has become a common question: Is the IOC going to train a refugee team with more efficiency for the 2020 Olympics?

"And I said, 'Well I don't think any of these refugees really want to be refugees four years from now,’" Marshall says. "To be honest, a lot probably will be. But the ones in the camps I would say they would rather be resettled to a first-world country or absorbed into the national population. Or go home!

"95 percent of refugees want to go home when they can, when it's safe."

* * *

Verbauwen knew that Anis was going to Rio the evening before the IOC officially announced the final 10 athletes. Anis didn’t.

"He said, 'No, I won't sleep this night.' And then I still didn't tell him," Verbauwen says. "So afterwards when I told him the day of that I knew, he said, 'Aaaah! Why didn't you tell me?' I said, 'Because I couldn't, because I knew that if I told you, you would tell everybody.'

Anis talked often with Mardini, his fellow Syrian swimmer, during the selection process, and she was the one to break the good news to Anis. Verbauwen had a feeling that Mardini would be selected, in part because her incredible story of swimming to guide a boatload of refugees across the Mediterranean made her an easy symbol for the team. Anis and Mardini had a natural rivalry — "He said, 'If they take Yusra and they don't take me, I will be so angry,’" Verbauwen recalls, laughing. Mardini won her heat in the women’s 100-meter butterfly on Saturday, setting a high bar for Anis.

The opportunity is lost on no one. For the athletes, it’s recognition of their individual backgrounds, brilliance and effort. For the UNHCR, it’s perhaps the best advertising it has ever had. According to Marshall, the agency gets more than 95 percent of its budget from governments that have to be sold on its programs before they open their national purse strings.

"We've got 30, 40 people here doing this because that's our lifeblood, and all the news we send out is always bad news," Marshall says. "So here's positive news, finally. That for us is a big deal."

The team highlights broader stakes, too. Verbauwen remembers eating a homemade Syrian meal at Anis’ uncle’s home near Ghent, and talking about Islam with his father. She challenged his religious beliefs, on which they found little common ground. Their disagreement didn’t diminish Verbauwen’s esteem for his intelligence and love of his sons, however. And in at least one regard, they did agree.

"He believes in Islam, he condemns all the war, condemns all the terror that has been done in the name of Islam," Verbauwen says. "He can make himself really angry when he talks about ISIS, he says they do so much wrong in the name Islam and they have nothing to do with it."

Verbauwen is worried that something will get lost in the outpouring of love, that the world’s tribute will be lip service — that, for example, "America would say, 'Oh it's a good story and that's a big story and we like it’ ... but at the same time saying, 'But not in our country.' See?"

The athletes may be physically removed from their countries of origin, but they are still tethered to their homes by the journeys they made to Rio. For two weeks they will have the attention of the world’s unbound nation.

"Back in our camps we have maybe 10 million kids, all over the world," Marshall says. "We are going to publicize this team in a big way, make the other young people understand that there's a refugee team out there, that they come from the same type of misery that you people are living through. That there's hope."

Marshall — 83, in his Geneva office, sun shining — says he’s getting "long in the tooth." He has a whole media team at his disposal currently, but he has a sinking suspicion that when the Olympics end on Aug. 20, he’ll be alone again as the UNHCR’s one-man sports wing. He has done his job for a long time with the simple objectives to find money and make things as good as he can.

"And sport, by the way, it's not the solution to all of mankind's problems," Marshall admits. "But in a refugee setting when you've got a lot of kids — it makes the difference between a miserable life and a halfway reasonable life.

"Makes them a little bit happy where they had nothing to be happy about."