(ATR) More time, more resources, and more awareness can bring about the end goal of the Refugee Olympic Team: having athletes integrated and competing for their home or adopted countries.
From left to right, Miro, Biel, Bach, and Grandi (ATR)
The IOC approved the second ever Refugee Olympic Team for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics at its 2018 Session. At the Rio 2016 Olympics, 10 athletes in three sports competed in the inaugural Refugee Olympic Team.
Currently the IOC is supporting a pool of 51 refugee athletes in seven sports around the world through its solidarity programs. These athletes were identified through partnerships with 13 National Olympic Committees which surveyed refugee athletes in their countries.
“We have to start earlier [than Rio 2016],” Thomas Bach, IOC President, said in a roundtable about the Olympic team. “There we need the International Federations to allow refugee athletes to participate in qualification.”
The IOC is working with the UN High Commission on Refugees in partnership on the refugee team. UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi is a member of the board for the Olympic Refuge Foundation, which has worked to support members of the Rio 2016 refugee team, as well as other refugee athletes worldwide.
The foundation currently has four active projects in refugee camps worldwide, according to IOC Deputy Director General Pere Miro. Two of the projects are in camps in Jordan, one in Turkey, and one in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. Miro says that the foundation is assessing the feasibility of three more projects worldwide.
Grandi said that it is important both the UNHCR and IOC through the expansion of the refugee team address issues of barriers to travel for stateless refugees and highlight the symbolic aspect of the strength of the refugee team. He called attending Rio 2016 the “best experience” of his time as UN High Commissioner.
“Usually if you take the Olympic team different places, because they will be refugees in different countries and if they go to Tokyo, it means you have to make sure they can get out of their countries and go to Japan,” Grandi said. “I am fairly sure it will work because it is obviously something everyone understands, is high profile, and is supported by the international community. However, we have to go through the motions of seeking the permission.”
For most refugees these kinds of permissions are “not possible,” Grandi said, and sometimes a total lack of freedom of movement exists. So the UNHCR will use the exposure of the refugee team to educate the world on the challenges many of the 68.5 million worldwide refugees face.
Preparations for the 2020 Refugee Olympic Team will be a “top down” approach, Bach said. The IOC will continue to work with NOCs to find more high level refugee athletes and work to qualify as many as possible to Tokyo 2020. Then it will continue to press International Federations to allow for refugees to participate in international events in non-Olympic years.
Ultimately, the “longer term” goal is for refugee athletes to be able to compete in national and local competitions, barrier free, wherever they are currently registered as refugees.
Yiech Pur Biel, following the IOC Session (ATR)
Yiech Pur Biel, a South Sudanese 800m runner, competed as part of the Rio 2016 Refugee Olympic Team, and is training to compete again in Tokyo 2020. He currently sits on the board of the IOC’s Refuge Foundation and is a global ambassador for refugee athletes.
He said while many organizations attempt to unite refugees through education and dialogue, “the only solution to [truly] unite refugees” is sport. That is because sport can still be practiced when refugees and the communities they live in have language or cultural barriers.
“I believe that we are not only competing because now we have a mission and we have a plan,” Biel said. “We can make a final or even achieve a medal.”
Biel said that the “IOC has done their part” to lay down the roots for the Refugee Olympic Team, and now the athletes will work to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
As the refugee team grows in stature and funding, the tangible goal of integrating refugees back into their home countries or wherever they resettle. The IOC says it will continue to support these athletes through this process.
“One of these athletes [Raheleh Asemani] that was so successful because she won qualification, which she won as a refugee, so we had the question do we insist now she will compete as a refugee so to have maybe a medal for the refugee Olympic Team,” Bach said. “We said no, because the ultimate goal is to integrate them into their new home, and their new NOC, so she then competed for Belgium, but unfortunately did not win a medal, but is continuing to compete.”
Written by Aaron Bauer in Buenos Aires
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