LONDON – They’ve fled war and violence in the Middle East and Africa. They’ve crossed treacherous seas in small dinghies and lived in dusty refugee camps.
They include a teenage swimmer from Syria, long-distance runners from South Sudan and judo and taekwondo competitors from Congo, Iran and Iraq.
They are striving to achieve a common goal: To compete in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Not for their home countries, but as part of the first ever team of refugee athletes.
A group of 43 displaced men and women, who range in age from 17 to 30 and have escaped conflicts in their homelands, are being considered for selection to the team called “Refugee Olympic Athletes.”
Prompted by the plight of millions of migrants and refugees across the world, the International Olympic Committee is creating a small team of refugees who will compete in Rio under the Olympic flag.
In what will surely be one of the emotional highlights of the opening ceremony, the team will march together into the Maracana Stadium on Aug. 5 behind the white flag with the five Olympic rings. They will walk in just ahead of the team from Brazil, the host nation that marches last among the 206 national Olympic committees in the athletes’ parade.
The refugee athletes will live in the Olympic Village with the other teams. The IOC will supply them with team uniforms, coaches and technical officials. The Olympic anthem will be played if any of the athletes wins a gold medal.
The plan was first announced by the IOC at the United Nations last October amid the still-continuing influx of migrants and refugees, many from Syria, into Europe. The IOC set up a $2 million fund for refugees and asked national Olympic committees to identify any displaced athletes in their countries who might be able to reach Olympic standard.
Pere Miro, the IOC’s deputy director general for relations with the Olympic movement, has been the point man in creating the team. Of the 43 athletes selected as contenders for the team, more than half are runners from central and western Africa, Miro said.
“I was touched by the personal story of each one,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But I also was really touched by how much sport means in their lives, not only for the 43, but for all those I met.”
IOC President Thomas Bach said he expects between five and 10 athletes will make the team. Miro put the figure at between five and seven. The final selection will be announced by the IOC at its next executive board meeting in June.
“We want to send a message of hope to all the refugees of the world,” Bach said.
Miro said 23 of the candidates fled conflicts in Africa, including South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Mali. A handful of others left Syria, with a few from Iran and Iraq. In addition to track and field, some of the athletes compete in swimming, judo, taekwondo and shooting.
The IOC has already publicly identified three athletes under consideration: 17-year-old Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini, female Iranian taekwondo athlete Raheleh Asemani, and male judoka Popole Misenga of Congo. Mardini is training in Germany, Asemani in Belgium and Misenga in Brazil.
Mardini and her older sister, Sarah, were on an inflatable boat with other refugees making the perilous trip from Turkey to Greece a few months ago when their small dinghy started taking on water in the Aegean Sea. Most of the refugees on the overcrowded boat couldn’t swim. So the sisters and three others who were also good swimmers jumped into the water. For three hours, they clung onto ropes hanging from the side and helped guide the boat to the Greek island of Lesbos.
The Mardini sisters eventually made it to Germany, where a local charity put them in touch with the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 swimming club in Berlin, based near their refugee center. They have been training at the pool, which was built for the 1936 Olympics, and Yusra — a butterfly specialist — was selected as a possible member of the Olympic team.
Asemani left Iran in 2012 for reasons she has not disclosed and arrived in Belgium, where she works for the postal service and trains with Belgium’s national taekwondo team. Fighting under the World Taekwondo Federation flag at the European Olympic qualifying tournament in Istanbul, she clinched a spot for the Rio Games. It’s possible she could compete for Belgium if she is granted citizenship.
“It has been such a hard journey. I was lost,” Asemani said on the WTF website. “Many times in my head I thought it would not happen because of politics, visa problems, lack of money and I couldn’t travel to (many) ranking events. … Rio is a dream for me. Hope has carried me to the Olympics. Now I will give all I have to win.”
Misenga and Yolande Mabika fled Congo three years ago and sought asylum in Brazil during the 2013 world judo championships in Rio. They have been training with the Brazilian judo federation.
“I’ve seen too much war, too much death,” Misenga told The Guardian newspaper. “I want to stay clean so I can do my sport. I represent everyone. I’ll get a medal for all refugees.”
The largest number of potential Olympic athletes was drawn from the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) from the border with South Sudan, a five-year-old country that has been wracked by civil war since 2013. Tens of thousands have died and at least 2 million people have been displaced from their homes.
The sprawling Kakuma camp houses about 180,000 refugees, mainly from South Sudan, but also from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea and Uganda.
“I was touched in seeing how the people live in this camp,” said Miro, who traveled to Kakuma in January. “It’s in the middle of nowhere. They have nothing to do. The main activity that keeps them motivated and alive is sport.”
Tegla Loroupe, the former Kenyan world record-holder in the women’s marathon, went to the Kakuma camp to hold tryouts and identify the most talented runners. Twenty-three were selected and transferred to Loroupe’s training center near Nairobi.
Speaking to the AP by telephone on Tuesday from the center, Loroupe said the athletes include an 800-meter runner, a marathoner and several 5,000- and 10,000-meter athletes. She said she expects eight to qualify for the Olympics and will accompany them to Rio for the occasion.
“This is something special,” Loroupe said. “Everyone can be a refugee, now they have this incredible opportunity to stand out. They want to be ambassadors.”
Miro said he doubts any of the refugee athletes will win medals in Rio, though that is not really the main point. The powerful symbolism of the refugees’ mere presence at the games is what counts the most.
“They will raise attention around the world,” Miro said. “We hope the world will get the message. We can show that sport and the Olympic principles are something to believe in.”