Seven months after fleeing the Syrian capital of Damascus, Syrian refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini is hoping to qualify for the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and join the Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA).
The 18-year-old, who represented Syria at the short-course World Championships in Turkey in 2012, fled the conflict in her home country along with her sister, Sarah, in August 2015, and now resides in Germany. Speaking at a news conference in Berlin today, Yusra said that the chance to reach the Olympic Games is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that not many others get, so she is determined to work hard to achieve her dream. “I want refugees to be proud of me. I want to encourage them”, she said.Yusra says that developing her talent as a swimmer was challenging in Syria. “The war was hard; sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war. Or sometimes you had training but there was a bomb in the swimming pool,” she said.
Mardini is hoping to be a part of the ROA team – which will be treated at the Games like all the other teams of the 206 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) – after being created by the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) earlier this month.Members of the ROA team must reach specific sporting standards and have official refugee status verified by the United Nations (UN), but will enjoy the same Olympic experience as the athletes of other NOCs, including their own welcoming ceremony at the Rio 2016 Olympic Village.
“By welcoming the team of Refugee Olympic Athletes to the Olympic Games Rio 2016, we want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world,” IOC President Thomas Bach said after the team was announced. “Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic flag and with the Olympic anthem. They will have a home together with all the other 11,000 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees in the Olympic Village.”
With between five and 10 places on the ROA team likely to be taken, Yusra is keen to inspire people across the world. She said: “I think first of all I want to do it for all the people; I want to inspire everyone. When you have a problem in your life, it doesn’t mean you have to sit around and cry like babies or something. The problem was the reason I am here, and why I am stronger and want to reach my goals. So I want to inspire everyone that [they] can do what they believe in their hearts.”
Asked at the press conference what impact he thought the ROA team would have at the Olympic Games, Pere Miró, IOC Deputy Director General of Relations with the Olympic Movement and Director of Olympic Solidarity and NOC Relations, said: “We believe they will send a clear message to the world that the refugee situation exists, and all of us together should do something about it. It is global and it is very important. Through the ROA, we can demonstrate that sport has values, which these days are sometimes put in doubt for various reasons. By bringing these athletes back to the Games, back to sport, back to life, and by bringing sport to the refugee camps to improve the quality of everyday life, we believe we are going back to our roots and really demonstrating that sport can serve society.”
While Yusra continues to work towards Rio 2016 selection, she’s complimentary of the support she’s received from the Olympic Solidarity Commission, which supports the NOCs. Yusra said: “Actually, Olympic Solidarity is supporting me a lot and in a big way; and I think that without their support, I don’t know, I’m not sure that I would be able to make it.”
Olympic Solidarity aims to ensure that athletes with talent have an equal chance of reaching the Games and succeeding in the Olympic arena. Since the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, specific financial and technical assistance has been offered to athletes preparing for the Games, in order to make dreams a reality for athletes who, without the support from Olympic Solidarity, might be unable to compete.
This was highlighted at London 2012, where 1,264 Olympic scholarships were allocated by Olympic Solidarity, resulting in 76 medals being awarded and 177 NOCs benefiting from the programme. While Yusra is hoping to begin her Olympic journey at Rio 2016 and the city’s Olympic Aquatic Centre, her journey to Berlin included several weeks trekking across Europe. Having travelled to Lebanon and then Turkey, Yusra and several members of her family endured a potentially life-threatening passage to the Greek Island of Lesbos before beginning their travels across numerous European borders and arriving at the German capital.
Soon after arriving in Germany, Yusra was introduced to Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, a swimming club based near her refugee centre, where she’s now aiming for Olympic qualification in a pool that was originally built for the Olympic Games Berlin 1936. Having endured the traumatic experience of fleeing her home country, Yusra has a clear ambition for the future: “I think my target is to qualify for the Olympics and to be an inspiration for everyone.
“I want everyone to stay strong for their goals in life, because if you have your goals in front of your eyes, you will do everything you can; and I think even if I fail I will try again. Maybe I will be sad, but I will not show it, and I will try again and again until I get it. I want to show everybody that it’s hard to arrive at your dreams, but it’s not impossible. You can do it; everyone can do it. If I can do it, any athlete can do it.”Note to editors: A VNR featuring Mardini can be found on our broadcast platform www.iocnewsroom.com.