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In Good Conscience

Refugee team have a higher calling

Competing in Rio via IOC funding a small step towards recognising those affected by crises

Heaven knows, sport right now needs something Olympian to rise above all of the abuses that seep from the top down.

And maybe, rather than turning a blind eye to the refugee crises around the world, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has found a way to make a small but significant contribution to the seemingly hopeless situation.

After an executive board meeting in Lausanne this week, it announced that a team of refugees will compete at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in August.

Out of the tidal wave of displaced human beings from the terrible conflicts in Syria and Africa, the IOC has identified 43 sportsmen and women who have the sporting potential, and the stateless qualification, to form a "Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA)".

"We have all been touched by the magnitude of this refugee crisis," said IOC president Thomas Bach. "By welcoming the ROA to the Olympic Games in Rio, we want to send a message of hope to all refugees of the world.

The world is full of immigrants, and sports teams, particularly European teams like the German world champions and the Swiss side of promising youth players in football embrace the sons of families who moved there after the Balkans conflict, or simply out of economic need. As Europe panics and uses tear gas and riot police to shut the borders because of the sheer numbers who keep on coming, the chosen few who will get to Rio are indeed a minuscule token of man's inhumanity.

"This team will be treated like all other teams. It may end up between five and 10 people, it depends upon the sporting qualifications."

The eventual number will be determined in June. Bach is right to say that this is a symbol of hope in a situation where more than a million people have fled their homelands in a perilous exodus towards an uncertain future.

He is wrong to suggest they will be trotted out like all other teams.

Not from the moment they enter the stadium in Rio will this be true.

Team ROA will march second last in line before the host nation, Brazil.

The chosen athletes will be led by the Olympic flag and accompanied by the Olympic theme song, rather than a national anthem.

They will wear uniforms provided by the IOC, all their needs will be paid outof an IOC contingency fund of US$2 million (S$2.76 million). The chef de mission, coaches and technical officials will also be appointed by the IOC.

All those things make them unlike the 11,000 competitors from 206 teams in the Olympic Village.

And they are unlike them.

The world is full of immigrants and sports teams, particularly European teams like the German world champions and the Swiss side of promising youth players in football embrace the sons of families who moved there after the Balkans conflict, or simply out of economic need.

As Europe panics and uses tear gas and riot police to shut the borders because of the sheer numbers who keep on coming, the chosen few who will get to Rio are indeed a minuscule token of man's inhumanity.

There are remarkable stories among them.

Yusra Mardini, a 17-year-old swimmer who reached Berlin after fleeing Damascus, is expected to be one of the chosen few in Rio.

Her journey already makes her a winner. Last August, Yusra and her older sister Sarah were among some 24 people crowded onto an inflatable boat suitable for a maximum of seven people.

After they left Izmir in Turkey, the boat's motor packed up at sea. The vessel was taking on water. Yusra and Sarah, the only swimmers abroad, slipped into the water and spent the next 31/2 hours pushing and kicking the boat and its human cargo towards Lesbos, the Greek island that is the gateway to Europe for so many refugees.

Their father, a swimming instructor in Damascus, had unwittingly prepared that boatload with a lifeline.

Germany took somewhat longer to reach. The Mardini sisters took 35 days in all to reach Berlin by foot, by train, and by that wretched inflatable, via Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Hungry and Austria.

Maybe there should be medals for every single survivor.

It is Yusra's great good fortune and her timing, that landed her in Berlin just at the time that the IOC (led by a German) asked the national Olympic federations to look out for refugees to make this US$2 million gesture viable.

There is a small irony in that Yusra, whose parents have also made it to Berlin, is training in a pool built for the 1936 Olympics with Adolf Hitler intent on using those Games to promote the Nazi notion of white Aryan supremacy.

He never achieved it because of the four gold medals won by Jesse Owens, the late black American sprinter and jumper.

Those who have seen the redoubtable Ms Mardini in the pool have no doubt that she will reach the qualifying standard, although she started near the lower end of the 39 aspiring swimmers in her group last autumn.

The IOC executives are touched by the plight of homelessness and desperation from so many challenging situations. Yusra is one of just 1.2 per cent of migrants who, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, get as far as Calais, or in her case Berlin, after landing in Italy or Greece.

She is already a survivor, and does not need an Olympic medal to be regarded as quite exceptional.

You could say the same for Raheleh Asemani, an Iranian now settled in Belgium where she delivers the mail and has fought her way to the qualifying standard in taekwondo.

"Hope," said Raheleh, "carried me to the Olympics, now I will give all I have to win."

And one more, also a fighter. Yolande Mabika already has asylum in Brazil.

She fled the Democratic Republic of Congo three years ago and found "judo helped me to escape war, to find another path".

Mabika has a greater mission than gold, silver or bronze. She hopes that by competing in Rio, her family left behind will find where she got to.

The IOC may have many reasons for its US$2 million gesture of hope. The problems surrounding sports - from corrupt officialdom to cheating competitors, to the fact that currently a major competitive nation, Russia, is barred from track and field athletics.

I don't know Yusra, Yolande or Mabika personally. But I do know that when Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games 120 years ago, he said: "The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'Refugee team have a higher calling'. Print Edition | Subscribe