Rio 2016: Where Refugees Are Finally Being Recognized

Organizers have signaled that the Games aren’t solely a competition among nations.

Yusra Mardini, an 18-year-old Syrian refugee, practices at the Olympic swimming venue in Rio de Janeiro. (Michael Dalder / Reuters)

To understand what the new Refugee Olympic Team has achieved at the Rio Games, it’s helpful to look beyond the Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini winning her 100-meter butterfly heat, or her teammate Rami Anis setting a personal best in the 100-meter freestyle, and consider Olympic history: For 120 years, with some exceptions, the Games have been organized by country. Athletes parade into the Opening Ceremony behind a national flag, compete for the greater glory of a national team, and receive medals to the tune of a national anthem.

Refugees, by their very presence, challenge the nationalistic ethos of the Games. They have been stripped of their nation, their flag, and their anthem. They have existed in one form or another throughout the 120-year history of the Olympics. But until this year, they’ve fallen through the cracks of the world recognized by the organizers of the Games.

Now those cracks are too wide to ignore. The Rio Olympics are occurring amid the worst refugee crisis since World War II, when the concept of a “refugee” was first enshrined in international law. In creating a Refugee Olympic Team that would be “treated ... like all the other [national] teams,” in having those athletes march into the Opening Ceremony right ahead of host country Brazil, in endowing that team with the Olympic flag and anthem, the International Olympic Committee has powerfully recognized the liminal existence of refugees in a world that is more than just a collection of nations.

In a competition that typically celebrates national successes, the Refugee Olympic Team highlights national failures—the collapse of countries like Syria and South Sudan, and the lack of progress so far by many countries, especially wealthy ones, to help resettle millions of refugees. The Olympic message of international cooperation has also been muddied; the Refugee Olympic Team is, in a way, a testament to international paralysis.

As Roger Cohen wrote this week in The New York Times, there’s a disturbing contrast between the world’s enthusiasm for Team Refugees and its apathy and antipathy for refugees as a whole: “They die at sea. They die sealed in the back of a truck. They die anonymous deaths. Fences are erected, walls mooted. … They represent danger and threaten disruption.” Everybody wants to applaud refugee Olympians in Rio de Janeiro, Cohen observes, yet nobody wants to welcome refugees into their own country.

Indeed, Olympic officials are carving out a place for refugees at a time when political leaders from the United States to Hungary are refusing to admit refugees because of the alleged threats they pose. The situation recalls the English poet W.H. Auden’s description of the predicament of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s:

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Affirming that 10 athletes are not officially dead to the world of Olympic competition just because they’ve been separated from their country is, without question, a very small step in addressing the refugee crisis. But it’s a small step occurring on a big stage. “We are not only refugees. We are like everyone in the world. We can do something. We can achieve something,” Yusra Mardini, the Syrian swimmer, has said. Perhaps people watching the Olympics will apply that message to refugees around the world who want to either return home or find a permanent home elsewhere.

One year ago, Mardini and her sister swam for three and a half hours in the Aegean Sea, helping guide a stricken dinghy from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesbos. At the time, her identity as a Syrian refugee fleeing civil war had everything to do with why she was in those chilly waters, and where she’d go next: Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, a refugee camp in Berlin.

In Olympic competition, however, she doesn’t only think of herself as a Syrian and a refugee, at least for the minute or so that she’s racing in the pool. “All of us in the water, you will forget who you are, what you did in your life, and which country you are from,” Mardini told NBC News ahead of the Rio Games. “You are a swimmer, and whoever is next to you is a swimmer, too.”