"...providing avenues for refugees to participate in various sports has yielded major improvements in mental well-being, especially during COVID-19."
Since its inception in 1896, the Modern Olympic Games have served as a means for nations of the world to prove their prowess in sport, and in some cases, to earn symbolic victories over political and economic opponents. In both team and individual events, these champions return to their countries after the games to accept the praise, fame, and sponsorships deserving of an Olympian.
However, what happens when those champions have no country to return to? Until 2016, such athletes, due to circumstances outside their control, were denied access to compete. Now, at the second summer games since its inception, the Refugee Olympic Team provides an opportunity for those athletes to both chase medals and raise awareness for the nearly 79.5 million refugees currently displaced around the world.
The selection process for the 2021 Refugee Olympic Team began as early as the conclusion of the 2016 games, in a joint venture between the International Olympic Committee, the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees, and several volunteer National Olympic Committees around the world. Selected from a large pool of athletes with confirmed refugee status, those selected will train with one of 13 National Olympic Committees based on both geographical and athletic necessities.
The 56 athletes featured in this year’s refugee team will participate in 12 sports, including badminton, cycling, boxing, swimming and weight lifting. While it would be a tall task to cover each athlete in this article, here are three athletes that you will likely see competing against some from your own country in this year’s games.
Rose Nathike Likonyen
This will be the second refugee appearance for Likonyen, a distance sprinter from Sudan who has previously competed at the 2016 Olympics, as well as for the refugee team at the 2017 World Relay Championships. Likonyen fostered her career in distance running shortly after fleeing the Sudanese civil war in 2002, when she was 7 years old. Once she and her family had escaped the civil war, Liknonyen began running in school competitions in Kakuma, Kenya, continuing all the way to her upcoming Olympic appearance in 2021.
A boxer who formerly represented Syria in the 2012 games, Salamana will compete in his second games ever this summer, his first on the refugee team. While training for the 2016 Olympics, war in Syria forced Salamana and his family to flee to Germany, restarting his life and beginning his return to the world athletic stage. At age 35, Salamana feels that his dream of Olympic glory is as fresh as ever. According to the Refugee Olympic Team’s official Instagram, Salamana has said that he enters this year’s games as a representative of his home country of Syria, his newfound home in Germany, and refugees around the world.
Two of the larger names on this Refugee Olympic Team, Likonyen and Salamana represent not only the broad spectrum of those who seek refugee status around the world, but those whose potential, athletic or otherwise, is hampered by devastating circumstances completely outside of their control.
The Refugee Judo Team
A unique addition to this year’s refugee lineup, the Refugee Judo Team is the result of a collaboration between the IOC and the International Judo Federation. The first Refugee Olympic Athletes to compete together in a team sport, the Judo team will compete in the brand new mixed team event, which pits six fighters per team from various weight classes against each other in match format. The six refugee fighters will not only showcase their athletic prowess, but also demonstrate a key component of the Olympic mission statement, which is cooperation from people of multiple nationalities and backgrounds.
The IOC Refugee Olympic Team at 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Credit: IOC / Greg Martin
Following the conclusion of the games, the 56 refugee athletes will continue to be supported by the IOC in the form of the Olympic Refugee Committee. Whether these athletes continue their careers in sport, or choose to move on to other ventures, the ORC provides resources in several countries for these athletes, as well as athletic and humanitarian programs for other refugees around the world. According to the IOC, over 200,000 refugees are enrolled in one or more Olympic programs.
While athletes within this program will be selected to compete in future Olympic Games, the primary focus of the Olympic Refuge Foundation will be to improve the mental health of those under refugee status through sport. According to the UNHCR, providing avenues for refugees to participate in various sports has yielded major improvements in mental well-being, especially during COVID-19. Moving forward, the IOC has committed to developing a program focused specifically on improving mental health through sport.
The Olympics serve as a source of national pride for many, but for those without a nation, the Refugee team serves as a chance to not only chase that dream of athletic glory, but to bring awareness to the plight of millions of refugees around the world. Everyone loves a good underdog story, and who could play that role better than these 56 athletes?
A new generation
It's been a transitory Games of sorts. As legends of the early 2010s such as Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, and Aliya Mustafina announced their retirements at the Rio games, fans around the world looked for new names to latch onto for the next series of Games. Who emerged this year?