One of the more notable athletes competing in the 2012 Olympics in London was Guor Marial, a marathoner from South Sudan. A refugee from Sudan’s civil war, he managed to make his way to the US. In high school he started competing in track, and made All-American in college. Noting that his time in the marathon was good enough to qualify for the Olympics, friends and coaches encouraged him to apply.
There was a problem, though. He wasn’t a US citizen and couldn’t be on the US team. He wanted to represent the new country of South Sudan (where he was born), but that country hadn’t yet met the International Olympic Committee’s requirements to field a team. The IOC suggested that he run for Sudan. Marial’s response was pretty much along the lines of “The Sudanese Army killed almost all of my family and forced me to flee the country. Do you honestly think I’m going to compete under the same flag?”
The IOC found a loophole. They allow for “stateless” athletes to compete under the Olympic flag. Wearing a generic black and gray track suit, and being given the three-letter country code of “IOA” (Independent Olympic Athlete), he ran in the marathon, finishing with a respectable middle-of-the-pack time of 2:19:32.
Since then, the refugee situation has gotten worse. Millions of people are being displaced by civil wars and strife all across the globe. Mindful of this, the IOC wondered if any potential athletes were sheltering in refugee camps or otherwise counted as “displaced” people.
They found quite a few….
Working with various national Olympic committees, they identified ten who are officially listed as refugees by the UN. They’ll be participating as the “Refugee Olympic Team” (ROT for short), and marching under the Olympic flag. In the opening ceremonies, they’ll be next to last – just before the host country of Brazil.
Rami Amis was born in Syria. Rather than face a call-up into the army and fight in the civil war, he and his family made their way to Belgium, where he has relatives. Look for him swimming in the Men’s 100m Butterfly competition.
Yonas Kinde is from Ethiopia, but since October 2013, he’s been in Luxembourg. He’ll be running in the Marathon.
Yolande Bukasa Mabika and Popole Misenga competed in Judo for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But when civil war made conditions there too dangerous, they sought asylum in Brazil.
Like many others, Yusra Mardini fled Syria in boats across the Mediterranean. She was one of those who made it. Unafraid of the water, she’ll be swimming in the Women’s 100m Freestyle.
A “home” away from home for those fleeing the Sudanese Civil War, the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya is one of the world’s largest. Five athletes from there will be competing in track events:
Yiech Pur Biel – Men’s 800m race
James Nyang Chiengjiek – Men’s 400m
Anjaline Nadai Lohalith – Women’s 1500m
Rose Nathike Lokonyen – Women’s 800m
Paulo Amotun Lokoro – Men’s 1500m
The IOC worked with the UN and other organizations to provide the funding and required support staff in order to get these athletes to Rio and have them be an actual, official team.
Let’s cheer for these people, and remember all the millions of other refugees that don’t get a moment in the sun.
More about the program and the athletes here: