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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

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Olympic Village

Lokonyen enjoys a game of dominoes with fellow team members as they relax in the Olympic Village.
Paulo Amotun
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Paulo Amotun

Paulo Amotun jostles for position during his heat of the men’s 1,500m. Amotun used to herd cattle for his family in southern Sudan until civil war forced them from their home. He is part of the Refugee Olympic Team.
IOC/David Burnett
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Yolande Bukasa Mabika

Yolande Bukasa Mabika grapples with Israel’s Linda Bolder in the first round of the women’s -70kg judo event. Mabika, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has lived in Rio since claiming asylum in 2013. During the Second Congo War she was separated from her parents and taken to a children’s home in the capital Kinshasa, where she took up judo. “I’m representing many nations and my victory is a victory for all refugees in the world,” the 28-year-old said. “I lost, but I’m here. The fight did not end today. The fight is not only judo, the fight is life.”
IOC/David Burnett
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Rose Lokonyen

Rose Lokonyen competes in the heats of the women’s 800m. The 21-year-old used to run barefoot through the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, which has been her home for 13 years since she fled from southern Sudan. She only began running in shoes after she finished second in a 10km event that was held in the camp by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation in 2015.
IOC/David Burnett
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The team

“We do not speak the same language, we are from different countries but the Olympic flag unites all of us together and now we are representing 60 million [people] around the world,” said swimmer Yusra Mardini. “We want to do our best to show everyone that we can do everything we can for being good athletes and good people.”
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Popole Misenga

Popole Misenga celebrates after beating India’s Avtar Singh in the first round of the men’s -90kg judo event. The 24-year-old is originally from the Bukavu area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was severely affected by the Second Congo War, and sought asylum in Brazil during the Judo World Championships in 2013. “I’m just really happy to be here because everybody understands and knows about the refugee team, knows the refugee story,” he said. “People around the world, they’re all watching this competition right now.”
IOC/David Burnett
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Christ the Redeemer

Members of the Refugee Olympic Team including Paulo Amotun and Yiech Biel enjoy a visit to Rio’s famous statue of Christ the Redeemer. Amotun and Biel were both forced to flee their homes in southern Sudan due to the civil war that tore the country apart, before finding their way to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, home to more than 179,000 displaced people.
IOC/David Burnett
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Yusra Mardini

Yusra Mardini surges to victory in her heat of the women’s 100m butterfly, drawing huge cheers from the crowd at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium. Less than a year earlier, the 18-year-old had fled her home in Damascus to escape the Syrian conflict. On her journey to Europe, she helped save the lives of 20 other migrants when the boat they were travelling in began sinking in the Aegean Sea. Few of the others could swim, so Yusra and her sister jumped into the water and swam for three hours, dragging the boat towards the shore. “I want to tell everyone that ‘refugee’ is not a bad word,” she said. “We’re still humans; we can do a lot of good things to show everyone that we are. My message is just, ‘Never give up’.”
IOC/David Burnett
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Rami Anis

“It’s a wonderful feeling to compete in the Olympic Games. I don’t want to wake up from this dream,” said Syrian refugee Rami Anis after competing in two swimming events in Rio. Anis fled his home in 2011 after bombings in his hometown of Aleppo.
Closing Ceremony
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Closing Ceremony

Shaunae Miller of Bahamas, Arthur Nory Mariano of Brazil, Kaori Icho of Japan, Pita Taufatofua of Tonga and Yusra Mardini of the Refugee Olympic Team on stage during the Closing Ceremony on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maracana Stadium on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Getty Images
Women's Judo 70kg
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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
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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
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