NEW YORK – Behind Greece in the Olympics parade of nations on Friday was a team of athletes from 11 different nations with allegiances to none, instead representing the 26.4 million refugees worldwide.
The Tokyo 2020 iteration of the Refugee Olympic Team (EOR) has 29 athletes, compared to 10 athletes at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. They hail from 11 countries: Afghanistan, Cameroon, Congo, Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Venezuela.
The events they’re a part of include athletics, badminton, boxing, flatwater kayaking, judo, karate, road cycling, shooting, swimming, taekwondo, weightlifting and wrestling.
In the early days of the competition they have already done well: Kimia Alizadeh knocked defending champion Jade Jones out of the gold medal race in Taekwondo.
At least two U.S. bishops, however, believe these athlete’s send a powerful message to the entire world regardless of win or lose.
“It is a reminder to the world that the human race is in a sense a family; that we have a world community and a significant portion of our family has been displaced because of persecution or some other fear that they’re undergoing,” Bishop James Johnston of Kansas City-St. Joseph told Crux. “It’s something that awakens the heart and the conscience of everyone when you see that and especially in the setting of the Olympic Games.”
Auxiliary Bishop Mario Dorsonville of Washington called these 29 athletes “role models” and “an inspiration for other youngsters to see” for their athletic prowess in the face of such adversity.
One example is Yusra Mardini. The 23-year-old Syrian refugee led the team – all dressed in navy blue suits, some adding a royal blue tie – out of the tunnel as one of the flag bearers. Instead of a nation’s flag, the refugee team carries a white flag emblazoned with the five Olympic rings.
Mardini fled Syria six years ago. As she made the journey across the Mediterranean with 20 other Syrian refugees, the engine of their flimsy boat died, leaving them stranded off the coast of Turkey. Mardini and her older sister got out, swam, and pushed the boat for hours, eventually making it to Greece without losing a single passenger.
Mardini and her sister then settled in Germany, where she resumed her training. And less than a year later, at 18-years-old, she competed in the inaugural Olympic Refugee Team. She is also an ambassador for the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
In Tokyo, Mardini finished last in her heat competing in the 100-meter butterfly ending her 2020 Olympics. At the podium afterwards, though, she spoke of the importance of the “powerful” refugee team.
“In this team every person has their own story, their own struggle that they came through, and they are still pushing towards their dreams, and they continue to dream even after losing a lot,” Mardini said. “That is how special this team is because they carry a message of hope to people that you can go through something really tough and still go forward.”
Dorsonville said it’s remarkable to see refugee team members, like Mardini, advocating for refugees worldwide. “When these refugees take the lead it’s not only thinking about what others are going to do for their brothers and sisters, but how they themselves become a real source of solidarity, love and support for others,” Dorsonville said.
“That is a good sense of healing for the future that we could find these young minds,” he continued. “They’re not set on how much they’re going to make. They’re not very selfish in their approaches. They still have that call to the community from their own experiences.”
Alizadeh competed in Taekwondo for Iran in 2016, earning the bronze and becoming the first female Iranian medalist in history. She then defected from the country with her husband citing oppression as women, particularly sexism and the mandatory wearing of the hijab headscarf.
While both Johnston and Dorsonville recognize the global significance of the refugee team, they both agree that the significance of the team could be even greater in the United States given the current divisive nature of the issues of migration and refugees.
Johnston called it “timely” for our nation right now for the refugee to be presented in a way that’s not political, especially through a medium like the Olympics where “the stories around the athletes are remarkable.”
Dorsonville said we should “be inspired by these lives.”
“For the United States, it is extremely important to realize when we speak about refugees, they’re not people who are going to harm us in any way,” Dorsonville said. “They’re people like us. Like our children, our families. They’re people who are humble. They’re people who have great ideals of self-building their dreams to achieve what they really want to achieve.”
Looking ahead to the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, Dorsonville hopes there will be athletes residing in the United States on the refugee team “representing a nation that opened the doors, embraced them, and gave them an opportunity.”
“The United States is the good neighbor, and it is fueled by people who are moved to compassion and solidarity,” Dorsonville said. “I’m sure that many of us are delighted to see this and I’m sure that we will be much happier to say, ‘well, some of them are living in in the United States.’”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg