At the Rio Olympics in 2016, ten athletes came together to compete under a single flag.
They hailed from South Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia, and Syria, and each one had fled their home country under dire circumstances.
They marched in the Opening Ceremony with the Olympic flag, coming out just before the host country of Brazil’s team. Together, they were the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), bringing together people who had been forced from their countries for safety reasons, and giving them a group they could represent and compete for.
These athletes gave a face to the growing refugee crisis and fulfilled lifelong dreams they thought had become impossible. They were “a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide,” according to a press release from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
They also were a reminder that sports — and the Olympics themselves — are about much more than medals.
Because the Olympics have always been divided by country, this left refugees with nowhere to compete and nowhere to belong at the Games.
But in recognizing the existence of these athletes, the IOC also recognized the complexities that exist beyond the sports themselves. Because, try as some people might, there’s no way to fully separate sports and politics; they are, and always will be, intertwined.
The world’s refugee crisis, which is still ongoing two years after the Rio games, is the worst it’s been since World War II, when some 60 million Europeans became refugees. It was during that time that the concept of a “refugee” became formally recognized by the United Nations — though they had, of course, always existed.
History is repeating itself in other ways, too. Countries, like the United States and Hungary, are refusing to admit refugees, citing the fact that they could pose a security threat. In 1939, the U.S. turned away a group of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust.
But by bringing their stories to the forefront, the IOC highlighted the challenges — and triumphs — of current-day refugees.
For example, Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini swam for her life just less than a year after she swam for Olympic glory. In 2015, Mardini and her eldest sister, Sarah, fled their destroyed home in Damascus to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.
It was a dangerous trip and their overcrowded boat suffered engine failure. Mardini, Sarah, and two others jumped into the water and pulled the boat to safety on the Greek Island of Lesbos.
“We were the only four who knew how to swim,” Mardini said, according to Olympic.org. “I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that.”
The 19-year-old said her message to others at the Games was to “just never give up.” A year after the Games, Mardini was one of People magazine’s “25 women changing the world,” had become a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), was working on a memoir which was going to be a film, and training for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
And Mardini wasn’t the only athlete with a harrowing story to tell and obstacles to overcome.
Thirteen years after she ran for her life in Chukudum, South Sudan, Rose Nathike Lokonyen ran the 800m in Rio — and served as the flagbearer for the ROT. She finished seventh in her heat, and, a year later, addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Switzerland. She also spoke to Pope Francis in Sweden.
And she wasn’t the only member of the ROT to meet with the Pope. Fellow South Sudan refugee Paulo Amotun Lokoro, who competed in the 1500m, went to the Vatican. “The first day I arrived they treated me like a big boss, and I am not a boss!” he told CNN. “People liked me a lot.”
The stories of these athletes prove that sports can accomplish more than just physical feats.
They can provide a sense of belonging and camaraderie and bring awareness to larger issues that are facing athletes as well as average individuals around the world.
The athletes of the ROT made history when they competed in the Olympic Games, and many of them are continuing that work today by speaking out and advocating for change.
As we celebrate the 2018 Olympic games, let’s honor the athletes that came before, shaping our world for the better.