Masomah Ali Zada started a cycling group for girls in Afghanistan despite social opposition. But as a member of the Hazara minority, she eventually had to flee to France in 2016. When 12-year-old Tachlowini Gabriyesos was fleeing Eritrea with his friend, crossing the Sinai desert on foot, every night they would leave their shoes pointing in the direction they were headed so they would not get lost. He met his running coach in detention camp in Israel. Wael Shoueb worked in a textile factory and as a karate coach in Damascus till he fled to Turkey in a rubber dinghy and then through Macedonia on a bike. He now lives and trains in Germany. Anjelina Nadai Lohalith fled war-torn South Sudan with her aunt and arrived in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya in 2002. She has not seen her parents since. She used to be a runner in high school and she’s still running, hoping that one day she will be able to help her family. Cyrille Tchatchet II, who fled Cameroon, contemplated suicide in 2014 when he found himself destitute and penniless, living under a bridge in the UK. Weightlifting, he says, helped save his life. Now all of them are part of the IOC Refugee Olympic team or équipe olympique des réfugiés (EOR).
The Tokyo Olympics, more than any other, are being hailed as a triumph of the resilience of the human spirit. The opening ceremony paid rich tribute to that idea, honouring emergency workers in a time of pandemic. But if anything truly symbolises the resilience of the human spirit, it is perhaps the Refugee Olympic team. Even when the pandemic has receded, refugees will still be here. Once they might have come from Vietnam and Laos. Now they might be fleeing Syria and Eritrea. Only the points on the map change.
The IOC Refugee Olympic team first took part in the Rio Olympics in 2016. There were 10 members. This year there are 29. I am not a sports fan. I was never the one who stayed up all night to watch a football match in some faraway corner of the world. My school sports career began and ended with the sack race. Sport does not thrill me the way it does my friends, who vividly remember a cricket sixer from a decade ago or a legendary East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan football match. But the sight of the EOR team walking into the stadium behind the Olympic flag was genuinely moving.
The Olympics are, in the end, a giant tally sheet of nations and medals. Every athlete hopes to do their nation proud. As the Tokyo Olympics got under way, I read a slew of articles like “10 women who carry India’s medal hopes”. When someone loses, it becomes “India’s medal hopes crushed”.
When Mirabai Chanu won the silver (and India’s first medal) at Tokyo, she dedicated it to her country and thanked the “billion prayers” of all Indians, which, she said, were with her on this journey. It is nationalism on steroids.
The refugee Olympians have no state backing them. They cannot rely on the prayers of their country men and women. If they win a medal, Domino’s may not think it worth its while to offer them a free lifetime supply of pizza. They are not the “medal hopes” of any nation. Some were once medal hopes of their own countries.
Kimia Alizadeh made history when she became Iran’s first woman Olympic medallist, taking the bronze for taekwondo in 2016. But when she fled Iran in 2020, the government denounced her. She came fourth this time, narrowly missing a medal. If the refugee athletes represent anyone, it’s the millions of refugees around the world, not exactly a constituency wooed by either politicians or corporations. “This (the team) will be a symbol of hope for all refugees in the world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis,” said Thomas Bach, the IOC president.
The UNHCR estimates that at the end of 2020 there were 82.4 million forcibly displaced people worldwide; 35 million of them are children. Sixty-eight per cent originate from just five countries—Syrian Arab Republic, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. India hosts one of the most famous refugees in the world—the Dalai Lama—but in general we do not think much about refugees except as political headaches, like the Rohingya refugees no one seems to want. There is no national law on refugees, only standard operating procedures. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act prioritised some kinds of refugees over others. But in general it’s best to keep them as faceless as possible, their stories lost in statistics.
In its own small way, the IOC Refugee Olympics team changes that. Each member of the team comes with a story of broken dreams being put back together painstakingly. And unlike that heartbreaking image of the three-year-old little Syrian boy, lying face down and lifeless on a Turkish beach, these are refugee stories that are hopeful. We can root for them as they try to aim higher, stronger and faster in Tokyo.
Covid-19 has overshadowed everything else in these Olympics. But the games are also taking place under the shadow of havoc wrought by extreme weather. There have been wildfires raging in Oregon, US, while floods ravaged Germany and torrential rains not seen in a hundred years submerged Henan in China. Verkhoyansk, in the Arctic Circle, hit a record 38 degrees Celsius. Massive lightning bolts hit Siberia and deadly mudslides battered India. John P. Holdren, professor of environmental policy at Harvard, told the Los Angeles Times that while all this was predicted in climate science decades ago, “it’s all happening at the high end of projections, even faster than previous most pessimistic estimates”.
Tokyo was so hot and humid, contrary to the Olympic organising committee’s promise of “mild and sunny weather”, that tennis champion Novak Djokovic asked for the matches to be moved to late afternoon, while the impending threat of tropical storm Nepartak forced some events to be rescheduled. These are reminders that while today’s Olympic refugee comes from known hot spots of civil war and political strife, like Venezuela or Darfur or the Democratic Republic of Congo, tomorrow’s refugee athletes might well come from our own backyards, driven out of their homes by climate change.
The environmental refugee falls outside the 1951 UN Convention that defined a refugee as a person with a genuine fear of being persecuted for membership of a social group or class. But the environmental refugee is no less a refugee than Aker al Obaidi, the wrestler fleeing the IS in Mosul, or Abdullah Sediqi, the taekwondo champion who fled armed gangs in Afghanistan on foot in 2017 and found shelter in Belgium but was unable to see his mother, who died of covid-19 this year. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that in 2008, while 4.6 million people were internally displaced by conflict and violence, 20 million were displaced by extreme weather events.
That number will keep rising. As will the numbers on that Olympic refugee team.
Whether they win medals or not, they hold up a mirror to a world coming apart all around us. And coming as they do from all over the world, and increasingly so in the future, they will, oddly, embody the interlinked rings on the Olympics flag more than anybody else.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.