It might be surprising to learn that for the second time in Olympic history, the 2020 (2021) games include a team of athletes from a non-geopolitical nation. This team is known as the Refugee Olympic Team (the official acronym, EOR, is from the French, Équipe Olympique des Réfugiés). A team of refugees, i.e: a team of people who have been forcefully driven from their homelands by war, ethnic tension or some immediate danger. These 29 athletes represent 10 countries by birth (Afghanistan, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela).
While cultural and national pride are clear themes at the Olympics, so is respect for peoples of all nations and cultures. Culturally, something unexpected happens when people from 200 nations gather; remember Cool Runnings?
Here is one of the lessons from the Tokyo games: People are normally united as ‘a people’ by common ethnicity, citizenship, religion or language. These are features that inform identity and often are the basis for community and affinity. Refugees do not share any of these common uniting factors. Instead, 10 nations of origin and who knows how many languages, ethnicities, etc are represented. Refugees are united, however, by the same defining experience which transcend the diversity among them. They have all overcome some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable. Yusra Mardini, for example, escaped war-torn Syria and made her way across Europe, and has participated in the Olympic games twice (2016, 2020) as a swimmer. Her story is below.
It is estimated that there are currently over 82 million forcibly displaced people around the world. That means millions of people have stories like Yusra’s. If all the displaced people in the world formed a nation, “Refugee Nation” would be the 20th largest nation in the world, and the 3rd most populated nation in Europe. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring to consider that so many people have persevered through extreme hardship, a quality prized by the Olympic games. I think we all agree that they deserve to be there.