Competing on the global stage gives new hope and valuable experience to refugee Olympians and focuses attention on the situation and potential of the world’s forcibly displaced.
© Mekkomen, a former refugee from Ethiopia and now Japanese citizen, was selected as an official torchbearer in the Olympic Torch Relay. © UNHCR/Ko Sasaki
Talent was unleashed. Personal bests were achieved. Tears were shed. Friendships made. Hopes renewed.
They may not have won any medals at the Tokyo Games, but the members of the Refugee Olympic Team — often overcoming greater obstacles than other athletes — inspired global viewers with their determination and challenged perceptions of the world’s 82.4 million forcibly displaced people.
“It’s not about winning gold, it is about winning the hearts of other people, which the refugee team has done,” said Yiech Pur Biel, the team’s representative in Tokyo who was part of the first refugee team in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. “We know that now we are Olympians, because that is a good title for them to be called: an Olympian.”
As the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games closed, the 29 team members — originally hailing from 11 countries and competing in 12 sports — were proud of having competed at the very highest levels of sport. And they were grateful to gain valuable experience and have the chance to display their talent, just as other athletes are.
“It’s not about winning gold, it’s about winning the hearts of other people.”
“Being a refugee doesn’t mean you can’t do anything that others are doing. It is just a status,” said Rose Nathike Lokonyen, originally from South Sudan, who set a personal best in the 800 meters.
There were personal victories to celebrate. In addition to Rose, three other runners achieved personal bests, including Anjelina Nadai Lohalith in the 1,500m and Jamal Abdelmaji Eisa Mohammed in the 5,000m. Sprinter Dorian Keletela, who fled Congo, won his first heat in the 100m in 10.33 seconds, his fastest ever.
Greco-Roman wrestler Aker Al Obaidi made it to the quarterfinals in his weight division, and taekwondo athletes also advanced in their tournaments. On 8 August, Tachlowini Gabriyesos, originally from Eritrea, ran a 2:14 marathon, placing 16th overall.
There were also disappointments. But the athletes’ strength of character shone through. The challenges they faced in competitions are similar to those they have faced in life, Pur said. For example, when 800m runner James Nyang Chiengjiek fell just 200m into his race, he got back up and chased the pack.
“After they fall, they get up and finish the race,” said Pur, who found that one of his key roles was encouraging athletes after a loss or disappointing outing. “In sport, you have to accept the defeat, which we believe as a team. We accept the defeat, and come back strongly next time… I always tell them, maybe today it is not your day — your better day is coming.”
Just competing in the Games is an enormous achievement for these athletes, partly because of the hardships they have endured fleeing war and persecution, living in refugee camps or adjusting to life in a new country and culture.
But they are also put at a disadvantage because cross-border travel is often restricted due to their refugee status, keeping them from training camps and international competitions that other world-class athletes regularly join.
The refugee athletes, who competed under the Olympic flag, do not want any special favours and treatment, said Stephen Pattison, a spokesperson for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, who travelled with the team. “All they want is to be able to train and compete like any other athlete, and to let their talents and ability to be shown to its fullest extent,” he said.
Beyond competing in their sport, the athletes also took seriously their larger role as representatives of refugees and forcibly displaced people worldwide, a number that has grown from 65 million in 2016 to more
than 82 million today.
Swimmer Yusra Mardini, originally from Syria, thanked her Instagram followers for their support, saying she was proud to represent refugees. “I am sending a message of hope to all of them doing what I love, also showing the world that refugees won’t give up easy and will keep on dreaming after going through tough journeys,” she posted.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established on 14 December 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee issues. It strives to ensure that everyone has the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to voluntarily return home when conditions are conducive for return, integrate locally or resettle to a third country. UNHCR has twice won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1954 for its ground-breaking work in helping the refugees of Europe, and in 1981 for its worldwide assistance to refugees.