Two months ago, the United Nations Refugee Agency released a report that found in 2015, wars, persecution, and conflict had driven more people away from their homes and communities than in any year since the UN began keeping records.
A staggering amount have risked their lives, spending every penny they have in order to survive, putting their families in danger in order to find safety in other lands.
Among the millions of the displaced, there are athletes; athletes with dreams. They have lost their homes, their teammates, their coaches. Training facilities have been destroyed, and what might have been an opportunity to shine on an international stage has been obliterated.
There are athletes who, despite oppression and conflict, have continued to compete. Communities have used sport to rebuild their sense of unity and strength. But displacement sometimes not only crushes athletes’ hopes, it can also be fatal.
This year, the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that they were creating the first ever Refugee Olympic Team (ROT); a resolution to the issue of athletes in refugee camps who had previously been competing at high levels.
As much as I want to applaud the IOC and support these survivors whose stories are harrowing – particularly the case of 17-year-old Yusra Mardini, a swimmer who pulled a life raft of asylum seekers through the Mediterranean Ocean to safety – I must pause.
Rio 2016 contains its own stories of militarisation and brutality. The IOC hasn’t done any specific work around supporting Brazilian families affected by the Zika virus, other than releasing a statement (also shared through various international sporting federations) about how it will “monitor the situation” and be in contact with Brazilian Health Officials.
Recently I spoke with Jessica Luther and Dr. Jonathan Katz on their sports and culture podcast about the conundrum I faced when deciding whether to (un)support Rio 2016 or not. I told them that despite the Olympics being a gruesome, militarised, money-making engine, the stories of the athletes are tremendous. For many of them who don’t have solid sports federations, the Olympics is their chance to shine on a global stage. And we need to support the athletes, even if it isn’t always through the channels that we want.
The stories of refugees who have persevered through unthinkable horrors have profoundly moved me. Anyssa Chebi (who works at the UNICEF Department of Civil Partnerships) told me that the financial needs of the ROT will be taken care of by Olympic Solidarity, a branch of the IOC that provides support and assistance to National Olympic Committees (NOCs).
They make decisions based on research as a separate entity. The uniforms, however, will be provided by the IOC and they’ll continue to be supported in their journeys after the Olympics are over. In addition, the concept of a team comprised of refugees is not one that is likely to vanish after these Games in Rio.
I asked Chebi about any potential tension that may arise between those athletes competing under the Olympic flag and their original respective nations. At the time of writing, Chebi is not aware of any countries that have issued a statement, negative or otherwise, about the ROT.
Exposure is important. Appearing at the Olympics is a chance for the athletes to acquire sponsors, get funding opportunities, and even be scouted to ply their trade in different leagues and countries.
My concern, however, lies with the media. I am weary of the white gaze upon “human stories” that arise from these situations. Will the athletes of the ROT be treated as emotional clickbait? Is the coverage of them going to be one massive Upworthy post? Will their athletic achievements and passion be the focus? Or will articles with an Orientalist lens about foreign lands and unruly warriors dominate the narrative?
I don’t have the answers, and the situation is complex. But it’s possible to watch the events and examine them critically. To boycott the Games and ignore how the athletes are written about would be careless. As someone who writes about intersections of race, gender, and politics in sport, its media is saturated with white, cisgendered men. Perhaps it is even more crucial as a brown, Muslim woman to pay attention, critique, and show solidarity where I must.
I want to support and cheer for the women of the ROT. I want to root for Anjelina Nada Lohalith, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, Yolande Bukasa Mabika, and Yusra Mardini without succumbing to the evils of a neoliberal and soulless event. Is this possible? It has to be.
“I’ve always taken the approach that we need not devote ourselves to the death of complexity. I don’t have a hard time separating the athletes and their hard work from the corporate parasites that have attached themselves, barnacle-like, onto the Olympic ship. We can have complex thoughts on this where we can appreciate the athletes and critique the uglier, seamier sides around the Games.”
So I’ll look to the Refugee Olympic Team as a light in a vast sea of darkness. Specifically ten bright lights who have navigated through war and displacement, and have continued to train and rise despite unimaginable challenges.
I can only hope their participation as ten people, with different life experiences, can reach the podium. Their sheer presence can bring attention to stories that seem so far away. I wish them all the success as they run, jump, kick, and swim alongside other world-class athletes. And I hope another message is amplified: that their countries of origin no longer be places of death and destruction, and their peoples’ cries for help not be ignored. May the athletes’ home nations rebuild and thrive.
The ultimate glory, in sport or otherwise, is for all to have peace and possibility; where children have the chance to grow and play – in safety.
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Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and Sports Activist focusing on Muslim women in Sports. She is an athlete, advocate, community organizer, and works with Youth of Colour on empowerment projects and is an avid sports coach and mentor. She is a regular contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, a Global Sports Correspondent for Safe World For Women and works on the Muslim Women in Sports website. Follow her on Twitter @_shireenahmed_ Her website is shireenahmed.com
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