In the framework of UN-led refugee protection, inclusion, and equal opportunities initiatives, sports has been playing an increasingly more important role. It has been recognised as instrumental in conveying strong universal values of respect, solidarity and equality, and enabling personal engagement, professional enhancement and, eventually, social and economic upward mobility. In the last few decades, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been working closer and closer in partnership with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
Since 2014, the two organisations have been committed to favour young displaced people’s access and participation in sport in the framework of the Sport for Protection programme carried out in Jordan, Ethiopia, Colombia, Rwanda, Mexico and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They aim to use sports education to teach life skills, favour inclusion, improve children’s physical and psychological well-being in the hope of healing their traumas, and protect them from risks and abuses. “For young people uprooted by war and persecution”, explains UNHCR on its website, sport is much more than a leisure activity. It is an opportunity to heal, develop and grow”. In 2017, the IOC, with the support of the UNHCR, launched the Olympic Refugee Foundation, confirming the Committee’s official and long-term engagement in standing by refugees and displaced persons, and youngsters in particular. Currently, the UNHCR and IOC carry out sport-oriented projects addressed to tens of thousands of children and youth refugees in more than 45 countries.
In parallel with the development of on-field sports initiatives for displaced persons, the UNHCR and the IOC also worked on the necessity to bring both plights and talents of refugees to the attention of the global sports arena in order to turn into broader and more impactful action the principles of their previous projects. In 2016, the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team (EOR, équipe Olympique des réfugiés in French) was established and took part in the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. At that time, the team consisted of 10 athletes originally from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and South Sudan. Five years later, at the 2020 Tokyo Games, the team almost tripled to 29 athletes from 11 different countries. Those are talented athletes who cannot compete for their home country, which they had to flee from to save their own lives. They represent an 82-million refugees “nation” spread across the world and sharing diverse but similar experiences and hopes.
Beyond the ethical significance of giving the possibility to take part in the Olympic Games to people who would otherwise be excluded from the competition, the establishment of the Refugee Olympic Team coincided, not by chance, with the peak of the so-called “2015 refugee crisis” in the Mediterranean Sea. Since then, and today more than ever, such initiative has also been aimed at raising awareness about the complexity of the migration phenomenon and the refugee experience on the wave of visibility given by the Games. As a matter of fact, during the Tokyo 2021 opening ceremony on 23rd July, the Refugee Olympic Team marched second, right after Greece.
However, the goal of the team is not to inspire mere purposeless sympathy and compassion towards vulnerable individuals. Alongside competing for medals like any other athlete, the Refugee Olympic Team members are also fighting to spread a more accurate and true-to-life image of refugees across the international community. Sports competition is working as a means to, first of all, re-humanise disregarded people, counterbalancing many states’ worrying tendency to engage in dehumanisation propaganda. A proper representation of the refugee population in the Olympic Games implies that the international community acknowledges their existence and plights while enhancing their personal and professional value. For them, the partaking in the Games represents a special occasion to show that there is much more behind the “refugee” label, as displaced people can be talented and skilled, have hopes and aspirations, strive, succeed and bring their contribution just like anyone else. As Syrian swimmer and flag-bearer, Yusra Mardini said, it is an occasion to “represent that those people are normal and have dreams”. For James Nyang Chiengjiek, South Sudanese 800-meters race runner, “it is something that gives us that hope that the world recognises us as human beings”.
This crucial aspect has been repeatedly underlined by both UNHCR and IOC authorities. Christian Klaus, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs Director at IOC, referred to them in a tweet: “Dear refugee athletes, with your talent and human spirit you are demonstrating what an enrichment refugees are for society. (…) You had to flee from home because of violence, hunger or just because you were different. Today, we welcome you with open arms and offer you a peaceful home. Welcome to our Olympic community”. Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, described their participation in the Games as “an immense pride for UNHCR” and a “significant moment for representation of the world’s more than 82 million displaced people, and a reminder to the world that, given the opportunity to pursue their dreams and passions, refugees are powerful contributors to society”.
While the UNHCR and IOC’s initiative to use the powerful symbolism of sport and the visibility significance of the Olympic Games in the refugees’ interests is undoubtedly admirable, one cannot help consider the political implications of such a choice. Since the Olympiads are but a geopolitical parade, the presence of the Refugee Team may also be interpreted as an encouragement for international actors to take more proactive actions in respect of refugees’ rights worldwide. Since the same states accepting the participation of a team of refugees are, in too many cases, violating other refugees’ rights and treating them unlawfully on a worryingly consistent basis, we may, in fact, question whether this call for responsibility and protection is actually going to be heard and turned into action, or whether it is just the spectacular surrogate of an apparently unachievable global solidarity.