The International Olympic Committee and the UN refugee agency have revealed the final refugee squad competing under the Olympic flag during next month's Tokyo Games. Six of the 29 members were already part of the first refugee team at Rio 2016.
After months of training, competing and waiting as well as bearing the uncertainty surrounding the postponed Tokyo Olympics, 29 refugee athletes are now set to take part in the biggest sporting event in the world.
In a virtual ceremony on Tuesday (June 8), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the UN refugee agency UNHCR announced the composition of the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) for the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games.
With 29 members, the squad is almost three times as big as the 10-member inaugural refugee team at the Rio Games. The athletes will be competing in a dozen sports and currently train and live in 13 different countries. The team selected by the IOC was drawn from 56 athletes who had fled their home countries and got scholarships to train for the Olympics in a new home country.
"You are an integral part of our Olympic community, and we welcome you with open arms.'' Thomas Bach told the athletes when announcing their selection. They would "send a powerful message of solidarity, resilience and hope to the world," the IOC president added.
The second Refugee Olympic Team
In 2015, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the creation of a refugee team for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. That year, more than a million refugees entered Europe after fleeing wars in the Middle East, Africa and central Asia. Consisting of four women and six men, the squad competing in athletics, swimming and judo was one of the feel-good stories of those games.
The 29 spots are significantly higher than the "around 20 athletes" the IOC said it expected to be selected. Six of the ten refugee team members from 2016 who made the cut for the second time are swimmer Yusra Mardini, judoka Popole Misenga and runners Anjelina, Nadai Lohalith, James Nyang Chiengjiek, Paulo Amotun Lokoro and Rose Nathike Likonyen.
According to the IOC, members of the ROT were selected "first and foremost on each athlete's sporting performance and their refugee status as confirmed by UNHCR." "Personal background" and a "balanced representativity in terms of sport, gender and regions" also played a role, the IOC said.
So far, the ROT members only had a chance to get to know each other during virtual meetings. They will meet in person for the first time a few days before their collective departure to Tokyo, according to the IOC.
The International Paralympic Committee has a similar program. It consists of six prospective athletes competing in para athletics, para swimming, para canoe and taekwondo. The final composition of the Refugee Paralympic Team will be announced in late June. All candidates, who live and train in Germany, Greece, Rwanda and the US, are hopeful to make the cut.
Fulfillment of dreams
One of the 29 athletes who made the cut is canoeist Saeid Fazloula. Having missed the last two Olympics, his hard work has finally paid off.
"When the IOC president said 'canoe,' I knew I'd qualified because I was the only canoeist candidate," Fazloula told InfoMigrants. "It was like a one-second movie with everything I've been through and done in the last six years. I screamed loudly and all the pressure that had built up was gone. After the announcement, I got to celebrate with my team for a little while. I still think I'm dreaming. But I made it, despite all the obstacles. Now, I'm really looking forward to Tokyo."
Fearing government repression, Fazloula fled his native Iran in 2015 and ended up in Karlsruhe, Germany, where he received refugee status. Not only did he participate in every German championship since 2016, he also competed in both the world championship in Portugal and the European championships in Serbia in 2018 -- on the German ticket.
Unable to compete in the Tokyo Olympics for Germany after his application for naturalization was rejected, Fazloula was hopeful he would succeed at his third attempt. "Perhaps this is my last chance," the 28-year-old told InfoMigrants before the team was announced. "It would be a happy end after fighting for it for six years."
Female Iranian Taekwondo athletes Dina Pouryounes and Kimia Alizadeh were also selected to the ROT. Alizadeh, who lives and trains only 120 kilometers away from Fazloula, became the first Iranian woman to win an Olympic medal when she took bronze in taekwondo at age 18 at the 2016 Rio Games. Alizadeh defected from Iran last year after she criticized wearing the mandatory hijab headscarf.
"I have a great feeling to have made a decision for my life that would definitely change my future,'' she told reporters in Germany in January last year.
Most athletes train in Germany
The 29 selected athletes are also from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Congo, Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Venezuela. They will compete in swimming, athletics, badminton, boxing, canoeing, cycling, judo, karate, shooting, taekwondo, weightlifting and wrestling.
Nine athletes come from Syria; that's the most from any home country. With seven athletes, the host country where most of the ROT members currently train and live is Germany, followed by Kenya with four and the Netherlands with three.
Swimmer Yusra Mardini is now set to be a two-time Olympian after also racing in the 100-meter freestyle and butterfly in Rio. "I feel very, very lucky to be part of the team," Mardini said at an IOC-hosted online news conference, acknowledging a "huge responsibility'' to represent 80 million refugees worldwide.
"In an ideal world we would not have to have a refugee team, but this is the situation right now," said the 23-year-old from Syria who has been living in Germany since 2015.
The team, whose Chef de Mission will be Kenyan marathon runner and peace activist Tegla Loroupe as in Rio, will be managed in Tokyo by officials from the IOC and UNHCR. The team will also have more than 30 coaches and officials.
"Surviving war, persecution and the anxiety of exile already makes them extraordinary people,'' UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi said in a statement, "but the fact that they now also excel as athletes on the world stage fills me with immense pride.''
The refugee athletes, with identifier EOR (for the French acronym of the team name), will compete against 205 national teams. The Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for July 23 until August 8, were initially slated for summer last year but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Opinion polls in Japan continue to show more than half of those surveyed do not want the Games to go ahead. Still, organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto said "We cannot postpone again."
The IOC said it would continue to fund the athletes after the Games.
With AP, dpa