Historic Refugee Olympic Team to return for Tokyo 2020
It was announced following the 133rd International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session in Buenos Aires, Argentina, that a Refugee Team will participate in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games. The IOC’s statement said that the ‘initiative is a continuation of [their] commitment to play its part in addressing the global refugee crisis and another opportunity to convey the message of solidarity and hope to millions of refugee and internally displaced athletes around the world’ (IOC, 2018). It is expected that the announcement of the team members will be made in 2020.
The team will follow in the groundbreaking footsteps of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team who competed at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics. Formed by the IOC in 2015, ten athletes - five middle-distance runners, two swimmers, two judokas, and a marathon runner - were selected to compete in the games as ‘independent Olympic participants’ under the Olympic flag. An Independent Paralympic Athletes Team was also formed, consisting of two refugee and asylee Paralympic athletes, at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. A fund of $2 million was created to pay for the Olympic athletes’ training and their participation in the games saw them hailed as role models for other refugees and individuals facing displacement. Powerful images were shared from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya where five of the athletes had previously resided, showing hundreds of refugees watching them compete on large screens provided by the Olympic Broadcast Service (in partnership with UNHCR, Amnesty International, Globecast and FilmAid).
The IOC has continued to support these 10 Refugee Olympians, as well as a number of other refugee athletes across five continents via Olympic Solidarity’s Refugee Athlete Support Programme. The IOC also launched the Olympic Refuge Foundation (ORF) in September 2017 with the board including notable members such as UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi and Yiech Pur Biel, a South Sudanese 800m runner who competed as part of the Rio 2016 Refugee Olympic Team and is now a global ambassador for refugee athletes.
Yusra Mardini, Refugee Olympic Athlete and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, has also announced that she is aiming to be selected for the Tokyo 2020 team. Mardini grew up in Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, and represented Syria in the 2012 FINA World Swimming Championships. Following the tragic destruction of her house in the Syrian Civil War, Mardini and her sister fled Syria in 2015. The siblings reached Turkey and arranged to be smuggled into Greece via an inflatable boat, however, the boat’s motor stopped, and so they swam while pushing the boat for several hours to get to safety. They then crossed Europe by train to eventually reach Germany where Mardini now lives and trains.
Mardini’s story is one of many that will inspire other refugees, as well as helping to drive crucial global support in times of a transnational refugee crisis. Thomas Bach, President of the IOC, recognised this in his statement; ‘in an ideal world, we would not need to have a Refugee Team at the Olympic Games’ (IOC, 2018). With a long-term goal for refugee athletes to be able to compete in both national and local competitions, barrier-free, wherever they are currently registered as refugees, it is the IOC’s aim that the featuring of a Refugee Olympic Team at Tokyo 2020 will be a significant step towards the inclusion of refugees in sport.