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Historic All-Refugee Team To Compete At Olympics

The world’s 20 million refugees will finally have a presence

It’s been a long time coming. In a ground-breaking decision, the International Olympic Committee announced that they would allow 10 athletes to compete in the games as a team of refugees under the Olympic flag. While it’s not the first time geopolitical issues have caused a team to participate under this banner, it is the first time that a team of refugees from different nations will band together.


Forty-three athletes from countries such as Syria, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo were up for spots on the team, which has been whittled down to 10 participants. There are six men and four women, and they’ll enter the stadium during the Opening Ceremony even before host country Brazil. The athletes will be competing in track and field, swimming, and judo; some have resettled in Europe, while others were found while staying in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Popole Misenga, a refugee from Democratic Republic of Congo, suits up for a Judo match (Getty Images)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) hopes the team will shed light on the international refugee crisis, which has caused heated discussion in Europe, Canada, the United States...all over the globe, really.. The EU may restrict the number of refugees it takes in from North Africa, Germany has reported a rise in hate crimes, and Montana residents are experiencing strife over whether to house Syrian families. This move by the Olympic Committee is a way to put a face on a crisis that has been been receiving quite a bit of attention—without the understanding to match. As IOC president Thomas Bach noted in his announcement, for at least the duration of the Games, these currently stateless refugees will have a home in the Olympic Village with their fellow athletes.

It’s a heartwarming story that will surely stir up some tears from everyone watching on their television (or iPad) screens, but as NPR points out with numbers from the U.N., there are about 20.2 million refugees globally—which means that these athletes, who are being called a “symbol of hope” by Bach, also have a major opportunity to bring awareness to those refugees who aren’t quite as fast in the 1500m. What will be truly affecting is if their participation in the Games brings more empathy to a crisis that’s been very emotionally charged, where the stakes aren’t medals but life and death.

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