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“We are ambassadors for the other refugees. We cannot forget this chance that you gave us,” Olympian Yiech Pur Biel, a refugee from South Sudan told the IOC members. “We are not bad people. It’s only a name to be a refugee.”
Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, a swimmer, thanked the IOC for giving the refugee athletes the opportunity to show that refugees can contribute to society.
“We still are humans. We are not only refugees. We are like everyone in the world. We can do something. We can achieve something,” she said. “We didn’t choose to leave our homelands. We didn’t choose the name of refugees… We promise again that we are going to do what it takes to inspire everyone.”
The President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, said the IOC established the ROT in part to raise awareness of the magnitude of the refugee crisis. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, estimates that more than 65 million people have been forced from their homes by war, famine and other man-made and natural disasters. They include 21 million refugees who have fled to other countries.
“We wanted to send a signal of hope to all refugees in the world,” the IOC President said. “These great athletes will show everyone that, despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, and most important, through the strength of the human spirit.”
President Bach and the other IOC Members rose to their feet and applauded in tribute to the athletes, who will continue to receive assistance from the IOC after the Olympic Games.
The IOC’s support for refugees goes back at least two decades and includes sports projects in 46 countries. Many of the projects involve providing opportunities for sport in refugee camps.
At the height of the European refugee crisis last summer, the IOC created a USD 2 million Refugee Emergency Fund to help National Olympic Committees (NOCs) support and integrate refugees. At least 17 NOCs, mostly in Europe, have participated in the programme.
The participation of refugee athletes in the Olympic Games Rio 2016 is the culmination of a process that began in October 2015 when President Bach announced in a speech to the UN General Assembly that refugees would be allowed to compete under the Olympic flag. That set in motion a collaborative process involving the IOC, National Olympic Committees, International Federations and UNHCR to identify athletes with refugee status and sufficient talent to compete at an Olympic level.
The 10 refugee Olympians were selected from 43 potential candidates narrowed down from nearly 1,000 possible Olympic competitors.
“These refugees have no home, they have no team, they have no national anthem,” President Bach said. “We are offering them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the other athletes of the world. The Olympic anthem will be played in their honour, and the Olympic flag will lead them into the Olympic Stadium.”
The refugee athletes are also supported by an entourage that includes coaches and medical staff.
The IOC is also using its Giving is Winning campaign, a philanthropic initiative that has become a regular part of the Games, to raise awareness of refugee issues among more fortunate athletes. At the dedicated booth in the IOC Space at the Olympic Village, athletes can learn more about the reality of refugees through short films featuring young refugees. The films highlight three values that are important to athletes as well as refugees: hope, courage and perseverance.
The 10 refugee athletes at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 are: