skip to content

The Refugee Olympic team, a symbol of hope

2016 Getty Images
Date
05 Apr 2017
Tags
Refugee Olympic Team, RIO 2016 , Olympic News
History was made at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 with the participation of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, raising awareness of the magnitude of the global refugee crisis. IOC photographer David Burnett joined the 10 athletes on their remarkable journey in Rio.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence”. In today’s world, upheaval on nearly every continent has forced millions to leave their homes. In the 1970s and ’80s, as part of my work as a photojournalist, I visited a number of refugee encampments across Asia and Africa, hoping that, in some small way, my photographs might tell their stories.

Leaving one’s home is probably the single most difficult decision one can make. Very few refugee camps provide anything more than basic lodging and subsistence.

It is a true test for the refugees on many levels. Education for children is almost always a casualty of the situation of too few resources for too many people. Yet, I have found there is almost always a resilience among refugees that belies their circumstances, and often those in the toughest situations reveal a fortitude that far surpasses what one might expect.

And so, this summer, with the International Olympic Committee offering support for the Refugee Olympic Team, we saw 10 individuals, each from a backdrop of strife and difficulty, who had been given the chance to train, live, and compete as Olympic athletes. That none of them won a medal was but a minor footnote to what was a committed and spirited group. Watching the long-distance runners take to the track, or the swimmers to the pool, one couldn’t help but be struck by the adherence to the hard work necessary for any athlete to succeed.

The first day at the training pool, I spent a couple of hours with Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis, both swimmers from Syria. Would they win medals or set new records? Perhaps not, but nothing I saw in Rio, in any venue, could compete with the sheer dedication to work – hours going full-bore in the pool – which they displayed. The runners too came with a single-mindedness which was typical of what one would expect of an Olympian. Sometimes it’s the game itself, and devotion to the game, be it running, judo, or swimming, which is the test. Days, months, even years of preparation are the rule, not the exception. The concept of Olympism embraces the fusion of mind, will, and body, and these refugee athletes excelled in every way, above all, in an age of adversity, with their own humanity. 



Photos

Olympic Forum - Buenos Aires 2018
Image Alt Text

Olympic Forum - Buenos Aires 2018

(L-R) Moderator Jim Bell, Yiech Pur Biel and Yusra Mardini - Journey From Refugee to Olympian: Spotlight on Rio 2016 Olympic Team during day 2 of the Olympic Forum Buenos Aires 2018 at CECBA on October 6, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Getty Images
Olympic Forum - Buenos Aires 2018
Image Alt Text

Olympic Forum - Buenos Aires 2018

Thomas Bach and panelists - Journey From Refugee to Olympian: Spotlight on Rio 2016 Olympic Team during day 2 of the Olympic Forum Buenos Aires 2018 at CECBA on October 6, 2018 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Getty Images
Women's Judo 70kg
Image Alt Text

Women's Judo 70kg

Yolanda Bukasa of The Refugee Olympic Team competes against Linda Bolder of Israel (blue) in the Women's 70kg category at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Carioca Arena 2, on August 10, 2016.
IOC/David Burnett
Men's Judo 90 kg
Image Alt Text

Men's Judo 90 kg

Popole Misenga of The Refugee Olympic Team celebrates beating Avtar Singh of India in the Men's 90kg category at the Carioca Arena 2, on August 10, 2016.
IOC/David Burnett
Men's Judo 90 kg
Image Alt Text

Men's Judo 90 kg

Popole Misenga of The Refugee Olympic Team (blue) competes against Avtar Singh of India in the Men's 90kg category at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Carioca Arena 2, on August 10, 2016.
IOC/David Burnett
Women's Judo 70kg
Image Alt Text

Women's Judo 70kg

Yolande Bukasa Mabika of The Refugee Olympic Team competes against Linda Bolder of Israel (blue) in the Women's 70kg category at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Carioca Arena 2, on August 10, 2016.
IOC/David Burnett
Men's Judo 90 kg
Image Alt Text

Men's Judo 90 kg

Popole Misenga of The Refugee Olympic Team (blue) competes against Avtar Singh of India in the Men's 90kg category at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Carioca Arena 2, on August 10, 2016.
IOC/David Burnett
Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, Member of the Refugee Olympic Team
Image Alt Text

Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, Member of the Refugee Olympic Team

IOC/Claire Thomas
Rose Nathike Lokonyen, Member of the Refugee Olympic Team
Image Alt Text

Rose Nathike Lokonyen, Member of the Refugee Olympic Team

IOC
Yonas Kinde, Member of the Refugee Olympic Team
Image Alt Text

Yonas Kinde, Member of the Refugee Olympic Team

IOC/Claire Thomas
James Nyak, Member of the Refugee Olympic Team
Image Alt Text

James Nyak, Member of the Refugee Olympic Team

IOC/Claire Thomas
Yusra Mardini, Refugee Olympic Team
Image Alt Text

Yusra Mardini, Refugee Olympic Team

IOC / Claire Thomas
back to top Fr