Olympic Stadium and athletics track

Refugees and Rio 2016

It seems to me that as soon as a country becomes a source of refugees, people forget everything else about the place.

Syria was home to archeological sites where artefacts belonging to some of the world’s oldest civilisations were discovered. It was a country with its own delicious cuisine and beautiful architecture. The kind of place you might fly to for a cultured city break.

However, after 5 years of war, play a game of word association with anybody in Britain and the word that follows ‘Syria’ will inevitably be ‘refugee’. A word that, for many, connotes poverty, desperation and hopelessness. In Rio, though, a group of 10 athletes, hailing from South Sudan, Syria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are looking to forge a new definition.

Truly inspiring sporting stories remind us that we don’t have to despair about the world 24 hours a day. For example, on July 10 most Britons forgot the controversy of Brexit and the subsequent avalanche of political instability for a whole 2 hours and 48 minutes. As Murray dominated Milos Raonic at Wimbledon, he achieved much more than his third grand slam title. He momentarily lifted the spirits of a nation.

As the world struggles on through a seemingly endless stream of terrorist attacks and tragedies, sport remains one of the few sections of the news where we can find positive stories (with the exception of the odd drugs scandal, of course). All Olympic athletes are an inspiration, but the 10 athletes who make up the ROC (Refugee Olympic Athletes) team are a testament to the extreme strength humans are capable of.

Looking at the stories of each individual athlete, most striking is the level of determination and sheer persistence it must have taken to even qualify for an Olympic Games. Rami Anis and Yusra Mardini are two Syrian swimmers who will began their Olympic campaign as part of the refugee team last week. In interviews, members of Team GB often speak of their last four years of training leading up to Rio. Anis left Syria in 2011 and has spent the last four years moving through Europe before finally arriving in Belgium in 2015. He began training again this year, just six months ago. Mardini was still in Syria until a year ago, when she moved to Berlin and started training there.

With exemplary athletes like these two, I hope that the ROC team will force people to recognise that ‘refugee’ is a label which is as irrelevant to a person’s worth as ‘male’, ‘female’, ‘gay’ or ‘straight’. In fact, perhaps I’m an idealist, but wouldn’t it be glorious if, in future, the success of Syrian swimmers were discussed at the dinner table instead of the usual pitying debate the country evokes?

The Olympics is an occasion upon which almost every country in the world comes together and so can redefine, and sometimes reinforce, cultural stereotypes. Here’s hoping these athletes can achieve the former in Brazil over the coming days.

Image credit: www.flickr.com/kachkaev

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Becky Grey

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