A Refugee Team Will Compete At The 2016 Summer Olympics For The First Time Ever

Although this year’s Summer Olympics in Brazil have been fraught with controversy, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) finally brings us good news: the 2016 Olympics will feature a team of international refugees for the first time. The mixed-gender team consists of five runners from South Sudan who now live in Kenya, two swimmers from Syria now living in Belgium and Berlin, a marathon runner from Ethiopia now based in Luxembourg, and two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who now live in Brazil.

Each member of the team was selected based on their verified refugee status, individual circumstances, and athletic ability (of course; this is still the Olympics, after all). Six of the team members are men and four are women: Anjelina Nada Lohalith and Rose Nathike Lokonyen from South Sudan will be running the 1500 meters and the 800 meters respectively; Yolande Bukasa Mabika is one of the Congolese judokas; and you’ll see Yusra Mardini from Syria swimming her way to glory.

Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, said in an official announcement that the team’s debut “signal[s] to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.” Bach also said that he hopes the athletes will integrate into their host nations so the need for a refugee team won’t be necessary in the future, which I want to believe is a call to action for the host nations and not to the athletes. They’ve made it all that way and have been training for the Olympics, which are two huge things that the vast majority of people never achieve. Cut them a break.

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CREDIT: Simon Maina/Getty Images

Nevertheless, the existence of the team not only speaks out against prevailing anti-refugee attitudes, but against anti-Muslim ones as well, since most members of the team are from Muslim-majority countries. Their presence as Olympic competitors — at a time when Muslim women in the West are routinely assaulted for wearing the hijab, people have been removed from flights for doing math equations that look like Arabic, and the Republican candidate for the presidency wants to bar Muslims from entering the U.S. — sends a clear message in favor of giving Muslims opportunities to be visible and successful.

The latest findings from the the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) place the number of refugees worldwide at 19.5 million as of 2014. This doesn’t include the 1.66 million asylum seekers and 38.2 million people displaced within their own countries. These millions of people need representation, and this new Olympic team is a step in that direction.

Refugee Swimmer Yusra Mardini - Photocall
CREDIT: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

While this is fantastic news, the Summer Games still have a lot of obstacles to overcome before August. Right now, Brazil is in the grip of a major corruption scandal, not to mention outbreaks of the Zika virus and a sailing venue polluted with sewage. Let’s hope that the Olympics’ first all-refugee team can shine despite all that.

It helps that Brazil is ready to show the refugee athletes respect: the team will be entering the opening ceremony under the Brazilian flag, right before the Brazilian team. That’s a hugely significant gesture which pays homage to the Olympic ideal of sports as a means of bringing countries together, and the world could really use some of that togetherness.