Live Blog: Refugee Olympic Team turns dreams into reality in Rio

Ten refugees who fled violence and persecution have overcome adversity to excel in their sports. Follow our developing coverage as they compete on the world stage.

Yonas Kinde keeps up with the pack at the Rio marathon.
© UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Ten refugees who made history as members of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team have started competing at Rio2016. The team includes two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a marathoner from Ethiopia and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan.

It's over! Brazil has brought down the curtain on the Rio Olympics – historic for seeing the first-ever refugee team take part – with a glittering ceremony celebrating the many facets of this colourful country and its diverse people.


Glittering celebration of life marks closing ceremony of Rio Olympics.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Rain could not dampen spirits. Dancing athletes from the 207 delegations, including the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, entered Rio’s famed Maracanã stadium to the pulsating sound of music combining modern and traditional Brazilian rhythms.


At the end of the ceremony, the Olympic Flag was symbolically passed on to Tokyo, which will host the Summer Games in 2020.

Japanese dancers celebrate the passing of the Olympic torch to Tokyo for the 2020 Games.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

What an inspiring Olympics these have been, with so many heartwarming stories of triumph over adversity. Right at the forefront has been , which won hearts and minds all over the world. "This team has captured the world's attention and in a short period of time, changed the conversation about refugees," said UNHCR deputy chief Kelly T. Clements, who attended the closing ceremony.

The closing ceremony continued the theme of honouring cultural differences in the way Brazil knows best: colourful music and dance. Flags waved and fireworks exploded. By paying homage to past musical generations, the show carried a clear message of renewal and hope for the future in an explosive celebration of life.


Earlier on Sunday (August 21), Yonas Kinde, the last of the 10 members to compete, took part in the marathon, which is tradationally held on the last day.

And here he is crossing the finishing line and fulfilling a lifelong ambition.

Yonas Kinde crosses the finishing line of the Rio2016 Marathon.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

On Saturday, the team received a visit from UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly T. Clements, who praised their contribution to improving the world's perception of refugees.

"There is no doubt that they have left a legacy with their presence at these Olympic Games, but they have also inspired all of us to do more to work for peace and help those forced to flee," she said.

The Refugee Olympic Team poses with UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements and staff in Rio's Olympic Village.  © UNHCR

She praised team members as "true Olympians", adding that taking part was as important as the result.

"The Olympic spirit is really the way one competes, and how one presents his or herself. And these athletes were true Olympians in terms of how they're cheered on others, how they made friends with people from all over the world," she said.


Popole and Yolande were back in training a few days after competing in the Olympics. They were treated like heroes at their local judo gym in a down-at-heel Rio neighbourhood, where youngsters strive to emulate their performances on the mat.

Yolande, back in training, practises with a young Brazilian judo enthusiast.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau


Rose Lokonyen had waited a long time and it showed. Wednesday was the turn of the 23-year-old South Sudanese to run in the Olympics and she took off. She ran the 800 metres against top-class opposition in one of her best times yet.

Rose, who had the honour of leading the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team into the stadium behind the banner of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at the Opening Ceremony, was pleased.


South Sudanese refugee Rose Lokonyen competed as part of the Refugee Olympic Team in the women's 800-metre event at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

“I am very happy with the result of the race as I was competing until the finish line among so many champions," she told UNHCR's Miguel Pachioni after the race. I thank all the people that were supporting me and gave us (the team) lots of attention. For the future I intend to train hard to become a good competitor, developing more of my ability."

Rio de Janeiro showed its support for the refugee cause on Tuesday. Fellow refugees living here turned out in force to support Team Refugees, and then the City Council unveiled a mural on the walls of an abandoned warehouse in a downtown area they hope will be revitalized as a result of the Olympic Games. "This is going to be the real legacy of these games, the first-ever refugee team is one of the main legacies of the games and this mural fits in and perfectly depicts that," said Robert Malengreau of the city's culture department.

Three Rio street artists, Sini, Cete and Kid, in front of their mural of the first-ever refugee team to take part in the Olympics. It is on the side of an old warehouse in the neglected port area of Rio, which they and others intend to transform into Porto Maravilha (Marvellous Port), fitting for the Marvellous City. They say one of the main legacies of these Olympics will be the memory of the refugee team battling all odds and overcoming hardships to take part.

Rio street artists in front of the Mural they created to mark the first-ever refugee team to go to the Olympics.  © UNHCR/Alex Colby

The initiative took place under Rio City Council's GaleRio urban art platform, which seeks to strengthen the sociocultural economy by empowering Rio's urban artists. GaleRio is one of the municipality's flagship programmes, and has been responsible for painting 12,000 square metres of street art across the city.

Tuesday saw South Sudanese refugee Paulo Amotun Lokoro run in the men's 1500-metre event. He was in great form. He came out the blocks on a mission but tired towards the end. Not surprising as this is the Olympics – the very pinnacle of sporting achievement. Look at him go – he's enjoying it!

Paulo Amotun Lokoro lets rip in the 1500 metres at the Rio Olympics.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau


After the race, Paulo, 24, said he was pleased with his effort, but admitted the standard was high and in the end he came up wanting. But he can't wait to get back into training and have another go at the big time.

"I am very happy. When I started my race it was so hard. But I struggled to finish. I did very fast (in first two laps) but the finishing line my body was just weak. Although I didn't do better, I did my best."

South Sudanese refugee Paulo Amotun Lokoro competed as part of the Refugee Olympic Team in the men's 1500-metre event at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

"My family in Kakuma, they are watching me. So when they saw me, when my family saw me they start crying… They are very happy. When they see me here in the Olympics, around the world. In Kakuma so many refugees living there and today they heard I will be running today so even they called me… So they tell me that they are going to watch me, people in Kakuma and they are very happy about watching."

As he was preparing for his big moment on the world stage, his mother spoke to UNHCR and sent her son a message of encouragement.

Kenya: A mother's message to her Olympic son



Ninibe Forego, a refugee from Colombia, explained why she had come: "Refugee is not a label, it is a situation that anyone can pass through at any given moment… The refugees that are competing represent us and they are full of hope, they expect to win and to deliver a good performance. We are in the same battle: qualify to the finals, to start a new life and to move forward."

A Syrian refugee family in Rio de Janeiro turn out to support the Refugee Olympic Team.  © UNHCR/Jonathan Clayton

Ibrahim, who arrived in Brazil only eight months ago, said: “We are supporting the refugees and the Brazilians for hosting them… We're supporting them (refugees) too much. They send a message of peace for the whole world.”

Last Friday was a full day of track and field and #teamrefugees got off to a flying start. Yiech Pur Biel came out strongly in his 800-metre heat, but faded towards the end. However, he fullfilled a dream and took a huge step forward on his long journey from war-wracked South Sudan. He ran in the Olympics and did not come last. "I only had eight months training, I know I can go much further now… I have overcome so many challenges, and this has opened my eyes," he said afterwards.

Yiech Pur Biel is congratulated by a Kenyan friend, Alfred Kipketer, who also failed to qualify for the final in the men's 800 metres.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Later, it was the turn of Anjelina Lohalith in the women's 1,500 metres and James Nyang Chiengjiek in the men's 800 metres. Both found it tough after a mere eight months of training, as opposed to years put in by competitors. But they finished and were warmly applauded by the appreciative crowd.

“Even though my time was high, I am happy that I have completed the competition. Even though I was the last, I believe that next time I will be in front of them (the other competitors),” Anjelina told UNHCR’s Miguel Pachioni after the race.

Anjelina competing in the Women's 1500 m at the Rio Olympics.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

“It has been really an amazing experience," Anjelina added. "It is my first time in Rio, competing with great athletes. It is just a beginning of my career in sports and I really wish to be able to do better."

Yiech said he loved the experience of being at Rio2016 Olympics, which has inspired him to keep on training and aiming for new heights. “It's the first time for me, and I liked it. The travel, the way we're staying in Rio… Actually, it changed my life. Not only me, but all the 10 athletes of the refugee team. We feel happy,” he told UNHCR’s Luiz Godinho, adding: “I never thought I would be in the Olympics, in my life. But now it's a reality. Because most of my life, I stayed in a camp. But now I can change my life.”

Yiech Pur Biel just before the 800 m race in the Olympic Stadium in Rio.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau


James Nyang Chiengjiek kicks off at the start of the 400m race.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

“It is a very good moment for all refugees worldwide, not only for me. Although we did not manage to get great results that is part of life. It was very important to be here today, competing,” James told UNHCR’s Miguel Pachioni after the race.

Rami Anis has just swum again. Now attention switches to the athletics, which begin on Friday. Five members of the refugee team are athletes from South Sudan and will be in action shortly.


"The race was very good, but I didn't improve on my time. Maybe because of pressure, because it's my first time at the Olympics. I am not happy with my result but I hope to to do better in the future," he told UNHCR's Warda Aljawahiry. "Representing the refugee team is an honour to me. I am proud to be representing refugees and all those oppressed. I take great pride in that."

Rami Anis shows his disappointment after his performance on the 100-metre butterfly race.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Wednesday was a day of high drama at the Olympic Games here in Rio. Yolande Mabika bowed out after a tough tussle in the first judo bout of the day, but vowed to keeping fighting for refugees. Then, Popole Misenga, originally from Democratic Republic of the Congo, won his first bout and made history by becoming the first member of the first-ever refugee team to progress to the next round. His performance triggered wild celebrations, especially among friends at a downtown Congolese community centre, where his exploits were followed on a giant television screen.

Even though Popole lost his second match against Donghan Gwak, who went on to win the bronze medal, he was supported by the crowd as a local hero.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Popole, 24, beat India's Avtar Singh to make it into the round of 16 in the men's 90 kg judo competition.

He told journalists later: "When I entered into the competition room, I thought that nobody would cheer me. Then I saw that the whole Brazil was supporting me. I got emotional. I felt something coming from inside: I need to win that first fight. And I won."


Fans were ecstatic at Popole's performance.

Congolese refugees in Rio cheer for Yolande and Popole as they compete the Olympics.  © UNHCR/Miguel Pachioni



The next round proved to be one step too far, but it did not dampen any of the celebrations.


Across the road at the pool, Yusra Mardini's Olympic amazing odyssey finally came to an end when she was beaten in the women's 100-metre freestyle. The story of her flight to safety has touched hearts around the world, and she says she has no intention of giving up. 

Yusra Mardini plunges into Olympic pool.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

"It was quite hard, but an amazing feeling to be in the water. I am really proud and happy. This team is amazing. All the colours, countries, all the nations – it's amazing,” she told reporters immediately after her race.


The refugee team, the first-ever, has already won. It has undoubtedly changed perceptions of refugees and the struggles they face across the world.


When Yusra competed in the women's 100-metre freestyle event, she swam in the same water as her hero, Michael Phelps. While she did not win, she proved to the world that sports have no borders and that refugees can compete on the world stage.


During the elimination round, Popole Misenga was knocked out, but that did not stop the crowd from cheering as loudly as they could. Before he fought it was the turn of his compatriot Yolande Mabika. She lost to her tough Israeli opponent, Linda Bolder. But again she leaves the tournament with her head held high.

Yolande Mabika lost to tough Israeli opponent, Linda Bolderfor, but left the Games with her head high.  © UNHCR

"I'm representing a lot of nations. One victory of mine is a victory of all refugees in the world," she said after her bout. "I have lost, but Popole won. Thus, I'm happy. Our team is the refugee team and it represents all refugees in the world. Our team is a lot of nations. We are together."

"This Olympic experience… I'm very happy, very happy with this day. I will never forget this day, even having lost my fight. I am a warrior. Fighting is not only judo. This is the fight for life. My name has already entered into history," she added.


Rami Anis, 25, a swimmer from Aleppo, Syria, today became the second member of the Refugee Olympic Team to live the dream. To rapturous applause, he dived into the waters of the Olympic pool at Rio2016 on Tuesday in the men’s 100-metre freestyle.

Rami Anis plunges into the Olympic pool at the Rio2016 Games in the 100-metre freestyle on Tuesday.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

"What a wonderful feeling, it felt like a dream. I don't want to wake up from it. Sitting in the waiting room was amazing, I felt enthusiastic and ready to take part," he told UNHCR’s Warda Aljawahiry.

Rami came sixth out of eight in his heat and did not qualify for the final, but he is not downcast as he sees it as good preparation for his specialty – the 100-metre butterfly – later this week.

"Today's race was not my specialty. It was preparation for my second race on Thursday in the 100-metre butterfly. I hope I can do my best on Thursday," he said.

On Saturday his compatriot Yusra Mardini, whose story of her flight to safety has touched hearts around the world, won her heat, but also failed to advance further. Both athletes are survivors of Syria’s long-running conflict.

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

"It's a strange feeling not to compete under my country's flag, but unfortunately war has prevented us from competing in the name of our country," Rami reflected. "We hope that by the time Tokyo 2020 Olympics come, the war will be over, we will go back to our country and compete under its flag. Nothing is more precious than one's homeland."

Rami powers through the water in his 100-metre freestyle heat.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Rami took to the pool to warm applause. Team Refugees has so much support among the public here in Rio. They have really won hearts and minds with moving stories of triumph over adversity. It is very moving to hear them cheered on each time their names are mentioned.

As Rami prepares to take to the pool, messages of support for Team Refugees continue to flood in from around the globe.




Here, UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi, who was present at the Opening Ceremony, explains the event's significance.


After the excitement of the Opening Ceremony, the Games got underway and Refugee Olympic Team's Yusra Mardini immediately made a splash.


Her time was actually 1:09.21 – fast enough to win her heat, but too slow to qualify for the semifinals.

Yusra won her heat and the hearts of millions.   © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Yusra says she will carry on improving. "I have only been back swimming for two years so we're only now getting back to my levels of before. But I'm pleased," she told UNHCR's @Luiz Godinho.


Meanwhile, word is spreading that #teamrefugees is the coolest show in Rio.


Later on Saturday, the UNHCR chief visited the athletes at the Olympic Village. Here he is pictured with Kenyan marathon hero, Tegla Loroupe, who is also the official head of the Refugee Olympic Team.

UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi and Team Refugees leader Tegla Loroupe.  © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau