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Sporting Life

Refugees find dreams and draw focus to their cause

Popole Misenga, a judoka, lost his mother as a boy during war in the Congo and wept some days ago as he remembered a family he hasn't seen for over a decade. Yusra Mardini, only 18, helped guide a capsizing dinghy as she escaped Syria and made her way to Greece. When people like this are in a room at the Olympics and recounting their lives, one thing becomes clear: All that whining about no hot water in basins? Maybe everyone should shut up about it.

Mardini is a swimmer and swimming saved her life that day in the Mediterranean and also every day. "When I jump in the water I leave all my problems behind my back," said the eloquent teen who now trains in Germany. For those moments it's as if the water, in some superbly secular ritual, washes away the past and readies her for the future.

Most of our lives we overestimate sport and embroider its importance. Yet sport also has worth and it is reflected in the first Refugee Olympic Team who stand not only for themselves but for a tribe of roughly 60 million. They run for the hopeless and swim for the homeless. We say the word "dreams" constantly when we speak of Olympians, but the refugee often forgets he is allowed to have one. As Mardini said of people in her land: "A lot of people there forget their dreams."

Popole Misenga, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a judoka, pictured near his home in a slum in Rio de Janeiro. He is one of the 10-member Refugee Olympic Team.
Popole Misenga, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and a judoka, pictured near his home in a slum in Rio de Janeiro. He is one of the 10-member Refugee Olympic Team. PHOTO: REUTERS

Athletes will fly first class to these Games which is fine, but this team came to freedom via leaking boat and lorry and refugee camps. Loss in their particular world means more than defeat.

The International Olympic Committee is rarely a candidate for prizes for good ideas, but this refugee team qualifies as one. If sport is supposed to teach, then awareness should be one lesson. Someone mentioned that these 10 athletes - judokas and runners and swimmers - will be forgotten after the Games but this was a misunderstanding of the muscle of symbolism.

On Tuesday evening, just a shot-put heave away from the Main Press Centre, this team walked into a crowded conference room called the Samba. Interpreters went to work in glass booths as journalists scribbled and cameras whirred. This team had the world's attention at the Olympics and we were forced to reflect on the elemental truth that everyone deserves a future and everyone has the right to compete. To play surely qualifies as a human right.

  • REFUGEE OLYMPIC TEAM

  • • Rami Anis (Syria), swimming, 100m free & fly

    • Yiech Pur Biel (South Sudan), athletics, 800m

    • James Nyang Chiengjiek (South Sudan), athletics ,400m

    • Yonas Kinde (Ethiopia), athletics, marathon

    • Anjelina Nada Lohalith (South Sudan), athletics, 1,500m

    • Rose Nathike Lokonyen (South Sudan), athletics, 800m

    • Paulo Amotun Lokoro (South Sudan), athletics, 1,500m

    • Yolande Bukasa Mabika (Democratic Republic of the Congo), judo, 70kg

    • Yusra Mardini (Syria), swimming, 100m free & fly

    • Popole Misenga (DR Congo), judo, 90kg


  • Yusra Mardini of Syria will compete in the 100m free and 100m fly. PHOTO: REUTERS

Most of us have no real appreciation for exile and no inkling of lost homelands, but here we were on Tuesday contemplating their stories. Offered to us in a time of sporting extravagance was the gift of perspective and proportion. Athletes will fly first class to these Games which is fine, but this team came to freedom via leaking boat and lorry and refugee camps. Loss in their particular world means more than defeat. Had she lost friends in the war, Mardini was asked. Yes, she said. A few swimmers, too.

"Chance," said Misenga at one point. "Opportunity," he added. This is what sport at its best can do. It opens doors, it offers a lifeline, it is a salve to the spirit. As Mardini said, forcefully: "I will never give up sport." As Yolande Mabika, who fled the Congo and now lives in Brazil, once said: "Judo never gave me money, but it gave me a strong heart."

Sport is a chance to profoundly alter a life. Sport is also a chance, in the case of Syrian swimmer Rami Anis, to simply take a wefie with Michael Phelps. In 2009 at the World Championships he tried but Phelps was focused on competing. Anis wasn't complaining on Tuesday, only grinning, but this time the word has got out and the decent American will no doubt comply.

The questions kept coming, the Refugee Olympic Team kept answering. We wanted to understand their past, they want to step away from it. When confronted with a query on death in his world, Anis very politely noted that "I prefer if your questions are about the future and not the dark past".

They were, after all, now in new lands - Anis in Belgium; South Sudan's Rose Nathike Lokonyen in Kenya; Yonas Kinde from Ethiopia in Luxembourg - and clinging on to new worlds. Late in the press conference, Mabika the judoka was asked about her bleached hair and she, too, reached for the symbolic. The new hair, she said, was part of a "new life, a new story, a new place". A renewed human being just making a new start.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2016, with the headline 'Refugees find dreams and draw focus to their cause'. Print Edition | Subscribe