UNHCR – Refugee Olympic team wins global welcome as Tokyo 2020 Games begin


By Malcolm Foster in Tokyo, Japan | 23 July 2021 | English

One of them is a marathon runner who had to flee fighting by crossing the desert on foot as a child, a swimmer who fled conflict in her country and jumping into the water to help get a group of people to safety after the boat’s engine failed.

All 29 members of the Refugee Olympic Team have experienced hardships while fleeing their homelands amid conflict or persecution, and have struggled to adapt to new cultures and societies. Despite all this, members of the Refugee Olympic Team on Friday entered the stadium where the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is being held, the global event that was postponed last year due to the pandemic.

The team, whose members come from 11 countries, including Syria, South Sudan, Iran and Afghanistan, headed to the main course to walk straight past Greece, which usually tops the list of participating countries.

Two of the participants, Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini and marathon runner Tashlweni Gabriesos, who is from Eritrea, carried the flag upon entering the team, raising a white flag decorated with Olympic rings representing the five continents – the flag they will represent. For the first time at the Olympics, each team was led by a female and male athlete.

After stepping out into the stadium in dark blue suits as they waved to the cameras, they were later welcomed by IOC President Thomas Bach during his opening speech. Because of violence, hunger, or just because you’re different. Today, we welcome you with open arms and offer you a safe haven. Welcome to our Olympic community.”

Five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, 10 athletes from four countries formed the first refugee Olympic team. The team was set up by the International Olympic Committee in partnership with UNHCR, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and send a message of hope to their refugee counterparts and to the world.

“It’s something that gives us hope that the world will recognize us as human beings,” said James Nyang Shinjiek, who will compete in the 800m and was also part of the team in Rio. “Sport has opened doors for us, and now we see how many refugees have talent.”

As a young boy, Shinjik was forced to flee his home in South Sudan to avoid being recruited as a child soldier, to make his way without his parents to the sprawling Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, where his running talent was first discovered.

Normally, athletes are greeted and applauded by the fans, but due to the coronavirus lockdown, this year the stadium has been unusually quiet, which has largely turned the event into a TV event watched by millions around the world.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, who is in Tokyo this week to support the team, described watching the Refugee Olympic Team enter the Tokyo Olympic Stadium as a proud moment for him and all UNHCR staff. Refugees being honored and applauded on the Olympic stage is an important moment in terms of representing more than 82 million displaced people around the world, and serves as a reminder to the world that refugees can make a powerful contribution to society if given the opportunity to realize their dreams and passions.”

UNHCR has worked closely with the International Olympic Committee since 1994 to provide access to sport for youth affected by displacement. At that time, the global forced displacement rate has risen steadily and currently affects more than 82 million people worldwide.

In the run-up to the Tokyo Games, the International Olympic Committee supported 56 people, promising sports grants to refugees to help them in their efforts to qualify. The final team of 29 met a number of criteria, including refugee status with confirmation from UNHCR, and a high level of performance in their respective sport, confirmed by the International Olympic Committee.


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