In deference to my friends who bleed Cub Blue on the North Side of Chicago, I recognize the emotions associated with finally winning baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1908, casting aside the most unenviable record in sports. I get that.
But if modern sport is as much about analytics, naming rights and classic comebacks as it is also about overcoming insurmountable odds to achieve the unimaginable, the first ever Refugee Olympic Team which made it all the way to the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro deserves to be in the conversation for Sports Persons of the Year, and it’s not even close.
No, they didn’t cure a century long curse of GOATS and futility; neither did they set a single season record for most wins in an NBA season; nor did they equal Steffi Graf’s record for career Grand Slam titles; and no, they didn’t win a fourth FIFA Football Player of the Year Award. Their collective will on the world’s biggest stage was a most unlikely triumph defying even the most optimistic observer.
Refugee Olympic Team, led by flag bearer Rose Nathike Lokonyen, at Opening Ceremony in Rio (ATR)
On August 5th, a global television audience of 3.5 billion watched a group of 10 athletes parade through the Maracana Stadium to open the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. That the first ever Refugee Olympic Team received the loudest ovation of the evening aside from host nation Brazil was clearly beside the point. Of broader consequence is the new reality that the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games is quite possibly the most powerful sports platform in the world. To place it in context, the Olympics are the equivalent of hosting five Super Bowls a day, every day for 17 days, where viewership for each Super Bowl exceeds 100 million plus. By the inclusion of a Refugee Olympic Team, the Olympic platform legitimized a worldwide refugee crisis long ignored by a global community unable to will the problem away. Quite simply, it has done what the United Nations alone could not do – present six men and four women to represent the plight of 60 million refugees worldwide with half the planet plugged in.
These stateless athletes emerged from the shadows of the Maracana, revealing real names and faces on the most visible platform there is. Imagine for a moment your first football game being the Super Bowl; or first soccer game being the World Cup final match; or your first big league baseball game being Game 7 of the World Series. That’s what it was like for members of the R.O.T, who had never competed in a major athletic competition let alone an Olympic Games. Yet here they were, certain only of their return to a refugee camp of marginal hope, embracing the moment as ambassadors of the human spirit, overcoming the longest of odds to perch alongside the world’s best athletes.
Following the Olympics, U.S. President Barack Obama convened an unprecedented Refugee Summit in New York, urging action on a thorny issue global governments have yet to fully acknowledge let alone solve. He was introduced at the summit by an R.O.T member from Syria, the swimmer Yusra Mardini whose far greater accomplishment, to that point and since, was helping save 20 people when their boat capsized in the Aegean Sea during their harrowing journey towards assuming refugee status.
Refugee Olympic Team press conference in Rio (Getty Images)
The fact that the R.O.T athletes even made it to the Olympic Games at all is itself noteworthy. Most athletes who dream of an Olympiad spend an entire lifetime preparing for them. Yet the athletes of the R.O.T came together in under 15 months with a goal of qualifying one athlete for the Games. They got 10. In this circumstance, winning a medal was secondary, if admittedly unrealistic, to the overall objective of promoting the cause and just fielding a team. The R.O.T represented both the mission and the message with the dignity and class which embodies the Olympic ideal. There were no disqualifications, no defections and no doping. Just a group of young people making the most of a program conceived by an Olympic movement far too often maligned for over-commercialization and lack of empathy. Not this time. The men and women of the R.O.T. justified their inclusion with their spirit, effort and enthusiasm and were easily the darlings of the 2016 Games, particularly among the other Olympic athletes.
The International Olympic Committee has recently set a two-year timetable for deciding if there will be another R.O.T at the next Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020. Until then, let’s recognize the current team for what it accomplished at this year’s Games, and appreciate their journey to a pantheon most will never reach. No longer faceless, we know who they are:
- Rose Nathike Lokonyen, South Sudan- 800 meters
- James Nyang Chiengjiek, South Sudan – 1,500 meters
- Angelina Nada Lohalith, South Sudan – 1,500 meters
- Paulo Amotun Lokoro, South Sudan – 1,500 meters
- Yiech Pur Biel, South Sudan –800 meters
- Rami Anis, Syria – Swimming
- Yusra Mardini, Syria – Swimming
- Popole Misenga, Democratic Republic of Congo – Judo
- Bukasa Mabika, Democratic Republic of Congo – Judo
- Yonas Kinde, Ethiopia – Marathon
An Olympic gold medal is one of the most valuable prizes in all of sports, with athletes pouring a lifetime of sacrifice into proudly representing a nation. The Refugee Olympic Team did not get to choose its “nation" status but they proudly embraced an opportunity to validate the real-world sacrifice each has made in a life’s journey recognized by sport, sustained by determination and spirit.
For this reason, these men and women, in my judgement, are the 2016 Sports Persons of the Year.
Written by Idy Uyoe, M.A.
Idy Uyoe (www.idysports.com) is an Olympic scholar, commentator and sports marketing professional. He is an active member of the International Society of Olympic Historians and is the producer and host of the online series The Olympic Moment – with new episodes available on YouTube and Facebook. Follow him on Twitter @idysports.