Lausanne, Switzerland: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) yesterday unveiled its first ever team of refugees which will have 10 members and 12 officials and will compete at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games under the Olympic flag.
On what IOC President Thomas Bach called a “historic day”, the team includes five athletes from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from Democratic Republic of Congo and one from Ethiopia.
“These refugee athletes have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem,” Bach said. “The invention of this refugee team is to give them a home in the Olympic village together with all the athletes around the world.”
The athletes, six men and four women, will compete in the sports of swimming, judo and athletics.
They include swimmer Yusra Mardini from Syria who trains in Germany, South Sudanese middle distance runner Rose Nathike Lokonyen, living in a refugee camp in Kenya, and Democratic Republic of Congo judoka Yolande Bukasa Mabika, training in Brazil.
“The Olympic anthem will be played in their honour, the Olympic flag will lead them into the stadium,” Bach said.
“It can send a symbol of hope for all refugees in the world and can send a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.”
The team will be housed in the athletes’ village along with all other national teams and will enter the stadium as the penultimate team at the opening ceremony, ahead of the host nation.
“They will show to the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through talent, skills and the strength of human spirit,” said Bach.
The plight of those fleeing conflict, as well as economic migrants escaping poverty, has polarised opinion in Europe, with the amount of new arrivals stretching the European Union’s asylum system.
The IOC had said it wanted to draw the world’s attention to the plight of refugees.
Back in Kenya, the five Kenyan-based athletes danced and hugged after watching a live stream announcing the team at their training camp in Ngong, a small hamlet 20km south of the east African nation’s capital Nairobi.
“This is the chance to show the world that refugees can live, work and enjoy their talent like other human beings,” team captain James Nyak told reporters.
The refugee athletes are being trained by Kenya marathon great Tegla Loroupe, Africa’s first New York marathon winner.
“I am happy and thank the IOC for giving us a chance. I want to appeal to my sisters and brothers back home not to lose hope.”