Refugee team takes centre stage ahead of Opening Ceremony

Since the Refugee Olympic Team arrived in Brazil, leading celebrities and fellow athletes have rallied to their side.

For the first time, the International Olympic Committee has created a team comprised of refugees.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – Refugee athletes have taken centre stage in the run-up to the start of the Rio 2016 Olympics, winning friends and warming hearts with real-life stories of triumph over adversity.

Since the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team arrived in Brazil towards the end of last week, leading Brazilians, international celebrities and fellow athletes have rallied to their side.

"The welcome has been amazing… People are being very good to us in the village and treating all the athletes as equals," the team's mission leader, Tegla Loroupe, told UNHCR.

Actress Mia Farrow tweeted her support:


Queen Rania of Jordan also expressed enthusiasm:


On Monday, during the inauguration of the Olympic Truce Mural, a pre-games tradition dating back to ancient Greece, IOC President Thomas Bach said, "With the Refugee Olympic Team, we are sending a message of solidarity for the people around the world. This is the worst refugee crisis in the history of the humanity."

"I hadn't anything: any caps, any bathing suits, nothing."

At their first press conferences, members of the 10-strong team have spoken emotionally of their journeys to Rio de Janeiro and the obstacles they have had to overcome to keep practising the sport they love.

Swimmer Syrian Yusra Mardini recalled arriving in Germany with nothing: "I hadn't anything: any caps, any bathing suits, nothing."

This time last year she was swimming for her life – literally – when the dinghy she and her sister had taken from Turkey started sinking in the Aegean Sea and she had to leap off and push it to safety.

Yusra Mardini in training at the Olympic swimming pool. She says she is ready to swim for her life -- again.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Before leaving the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, South Sudanese runner Yiech Pur Biel told UNHCR his immediate family did not even know he was taking part in the Olympics. He fled war at the age of 11 and grew up in a refugee camp in the north of Kenya.

"We will show that even though we are refugees, we are still human beings," he said. His mother and siblings fled to Ethiopia when he went to Kenya with an uncle, and he has never seen them again.

Popole Misenga, 24, from Democratic Republic of the Congo, broke down in tears as he explained to a hushed audience that he had not seen his family for 18 years.

Such stories of heroism have touched hearts worldwide before the games even begin.

Social media feeds are awash with messages of good luck.


Attention has now turned to who will carry the IOC flag for the team at the Opening Ceremony on Friday. At the moment, organizers are keeping a tight lid on that news.