Olympics: First-ever refugee team ascends to Rio's Christ statue

Athletes of the Refugee Olympic Team take pictures with a staff member in front of the statue of Christ the Redeemer.
Athletes of the Refugee Olympic Team take pictures with a staff member in front of the statue of Christ the Redeemer.PHOTO: AFP

RIO DE JANEIRO (REUTERS) - Members of the first-ever Olympic refugee team visited Rio de Janeiro's iconic Christ statue Saturday (July 30), with smiles as wide as their arms were outstretched, imitating the landmark's open embrace as they posed for photos.

A mist of light clouds softened the afternoon light, giving the athletes who come from harrowing backgrounds a heavenly glimpse of one of the world's most beautiful cities, with its golden sand beaches, blue ocean and lush green Atlantic rain forest below.

Standing at the base of the statue, Yusra Mardini, a swimmer who fled Syria's war and trains in Germany, said that the entire refugee team was elated to be in Rio "because all of them have the same strong feeling about never giving up, and they did a lot to reach here."

Rio's Olympics that open this Friday and run through Aug 21 are the first to include a team entirely of refugees, which includes 10 athletes from four countries who will compete under the Olympic flag.

The team of six men and four women includes five athletes from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from Democratic Republic of Congo and one from Ethiopia.

They will compete in swimming, judo and athletics.

After posing for photos with tourists at the Christ the Redeemer statue, James Nyang Chiengjiek, a track and field athlete from South Sudan to compete in the 400m run, said since he arrived on Friday he had been warmly welcomed everywhere in Rio.

"All the people are so happy. They are waiting for us in the airport, they are so happy to see us," he said. "We have so many friends, it is good to interact with them."

Another South Sudanese track athlete, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, who will compete in the 800m run, said the entire team was surprised to be taking part in the Games.

"In our lifetime, we never thought that running could be something that can have a benefit," she said.

"But right now, I am really interested, and have an interest in sport."