Sport Olympics Rio Olympics 2016: Refugee Team beats odds to make Games debut

Rio Olympics 2016: Refugee Team beats odds to make Games debut

Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini's story is probably the most well known of the Refugee Olympic Team. Photo: Getty
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The members of the newest Olympic team shuffled into the media centre in Rio, already knowing they would face more attention than most minor nations.

This was the maiden media appearance of the first ever Olympic Refugee Team – a contingent of 10 – as an entire squad.

One who has faced the brunt of attention is Yusra Mardini, the 18-year-old Syrian who is now an Olympic swimmer but was the refugee who swam for her life and the lives of the refugees with her in the boat from Turkey to Greece.

She jumped into the water and pushed it to shore for three hours.

You would think after that, the teenager could handle anything – and she certainly handled media attention.

Mardini wants the International Olympic Committee to continue to build on the idea of including a refugee team at every Olympics in the future.

“We are doing that because we want them to have hope, and all the refugees are supported by all the world because everyone can help,” she told the ABC.

“I want to tell everyone that everyone can help the refugees and they can achieve a lot of things.”

Mardini feels the hardships she and her teammates have faced in their lives have meant there is a unique spirit among the refugee squad that cannot be rivalled by any national squad competing in Rio.

The Olympic Refugee Team meets the press only days out from the Rio Games.
The Olympic Refugee Team meets the press only days out from the Rio Games. Photo: Getty

“I think that I really worked so hard for that, and I think because of the working on swimming I had 13 years or 12 years of training, so this is why we are here,” she said.

Retired Australian world champion swimmer Sophie Edington has handled the media responsibilities for the team in the build-up to the Games and she is impressed by their spirit and camaraderie.

“We have five different athletes who have competed at a world championship level and five who have all grown up together in a refugee camp in Kakuma in Kenya,” she said.

“It is interesting to see the different dynamics of the ones who have travelled more than the others but it is also nice to see them helping each other out.

“It was very interesting to bring them into the village the first time.

“Watching them experience all the different elements of the village, whether it be taking them to their room for the first time, explaining the quilt covers they can take home with them as a memento from Rio, taking them to the dining hall and showing them how to best prepare and not go to crazy, but also making sure they are eating enough in preparation for their time as well.”

Refugee team focusing on positives

Edington has been impressed by the level of resolve among the Olympic Refugee Team, acknowledging their life journeys have shaped them as people.

“I’ve spoken to them all individually now and had the chance to sit down with them and talk with them a lot,” she said.

The faces of the very first Olympic Refugee Team.
The faces of the very first Olympic Refugee Team. Photo: UNHCR

“But for me it is not about bringing up their past, it is about talking to them and trying to keep them positive, and being there as a support throughout this very busy time in the lead-up to the Games, and helping them prepare as much as they can.

“We went and tried on uniforms the other day and it was a really exciting experience getting tailored and getting everything set for the opening ceremony, so that was a really good experience.

“I was in a taxi with three of the South Sudanese athletes. They saw the ocean for the first time and it was really, really exciting to see their reaction.”

Edington hopes each athlete competing as part of the Olympic Refugee Team will take pride in how far they have come to compete in Rio.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach (C) poses with a team of Refugee Olympic Athletes and their trainers in Rio.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach (C) poses with a team of refugee Olympic athletes and their trainers in Rio. Photo: AFP/Getty

“I think that the preparation for these guys is something that they never dreamt of being somewhere like this and it just showed their persistence and their own ability to get through many hardships in order to be here,” she said.

“I have spoken to many of them about how every athlete has their own story to get here but there’s is also very special and it’s something that they will all have with them for the rest of their lives.

“Some of them have already said how they can’t wait to tell their kids and their grandkids about this experience and I think that is something very cool to have.”

It is just a few days until the team marches into the opening ceremony and sends a note of hope to the 60 million displaced people around the world.


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