|Refugee Olympic Team's Yusra Mardini, center, smiles during a welcome ceremony at the Olympic Village on Aug. 3, ahead of the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Ms. Mardini, who fled Syria's civil war, is one of 10 athletes competing this year in an all-refugee team under the Olympic flag. Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP|
So far, the 10 athletes have had some defeats, but say they are proud to have
made it to the Olympics, raising awareness about the plight of refugees.
Originally from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the 10 Olympic athletes were whittled down from a field of 43 in a intensive training process in June.
But after they became the first all-refugee team to compete in Rio de Janeiro this year, the 10 athletes have also come to see their victories – and their losses – as more than single events.
In overcoming intense odds – spending days in one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Kenya, or rescuing 20 people while on a perilous boat journey to Europe — they also believe they can raise awareness about the plight of the more than 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homelands.
“I’m very happy even having lost, because I had the chance to fight at the Olympics," Yolande Bukasa, who competed in judo on Wednesday and lost to 11th seeded Linda Bolder, of Israel, told the Associated Press.
"Someday I think there will be a plaque commemorating the fact that I took part in the 2016 Olympics,” Ms. Bukasa said.
Popole Misenga – like Bukasa, also originally from Congo – fared slightly better in his own judo competition, winning a bout against India's Avtar Singh after landing a single throw for one point before losing in the second round.
Despite his loss, he aimed to keep competing, he told the AP, aiming to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
For the legendary marathoner Tegla Loroupe, whose foundation trained the five South Sudanese runners – along with several other east African refugees – at a camp in Kenya, seeing them make the team was inspiring.
“These are extraordinary people. When they came to us, they were not real athletes – they had been in a refugee camp, some did not even have enough food, and they had left everything – their country, their culture – which is not an easy thing,” Ms. Loroupe told the Christian Science Monitor in June. “I feel so proud to see them now.”
For Anjelina Nadai, who left her family in South Sudan years ago and will compete Saturday in the women’s 1500m heats, being selected for the team was unexpected. “I’m more than excited,” she told the Monitor. “I didn’t expect this, but it will change my life.”
Claude Marshall, the sports coordinator for the United Nations refugee agency, which assembled the team as a symbol of the 65 million people who are forcibly displaced from their homelands around the world, said he was impressed by the athletes’ reluctance to talk about themselves.
"Even here at the Olympics, they don't like to talk about themselves," Mr. Marshall told the AP. "They talk about doing this for the 10 million refugee kids out there and about the healing power of sport."
Yusra Mardini, who made a perilous journey from Syria in a inflatable boat with her sister Sarah and 19 other people, won her heat in the 100-meter butterfly on Saturday, though her time wasn’t fast enough to progress to the semifinal round. On Wednesday, she was unable to advance beyond the first heat of the 100-meter free style, NPR reports.
She came to the Olympics after finding herself swimming for her life.
“I never would have believed I would be where I am now,” she said in a video interview published by the International Organization for Migration.
After the boat’s engine stopped and it began deflating, she and Sarah, also a swimmer, realized they needed to try save the people onboard.
“At that very moment I felt that life was bigger than me alone. All the people on that boat were part of me,” Sarah said in an interview with the IOM.
Rami Anis, a fellow swimmer from Aleppo, Syria who fled the country’s civil war, going first to Turkey and eventually to Belgium, competed in the 100-meter freestyle on Tuesday. He didn’t advance out of the first heat, but is set to compete again in the 100-meter butterfly on Thursday, according to NPR.
Mr. Anis, who has settled in Belgium, told NPR he most wanted to compete under the flag of his homeland.
"The ultimate goal of the refugee team is that we don't need one anymore," International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said, according to the AP. For at least one of the 43 athletes originally in contention for the refugee team, that dream has come true: Raheleh Asemani, an Iranian taekwondo fighter now working as a postwoman, will compete next week for her adoptive country, Belgium.
For the others, however, the all-refugee team has been a powerful experience.
“I can't explain the feeling, it has power, it's amazing. It's very good news for refugee athletes that Olympic Solidarity have given us this chance to participate here,” Yonas Kinde, a marathon runner from Ethiopia, told the BBC.
Still set to compete in Rio are runners Mr. Kinde, Anjelina Nadai, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, Paulo Lokoro, James Chiengjeik, and Yiech Pur Biel.
This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.
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