World Refugee Day: Overcoming the odds to qualify for Tokyo

The Olympic Refugee team enter the athletes parade during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maracana Stadium (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
The Olympic Refugee team enter the athletes parade during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maracana Stadium (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Today (June 20) is World Refugee Day and Tokyo 2020 looks back on the foundation of the Refugee Olympic Team and its athletes hoping to make selection for next Summer.

On 5 August 2016, thousands of athletes marched proudly inside the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the opening of the Olympic Games.

Yet nestled among the 11,000 athletes who took part that evening was a group of 10 competitors who would go on to make history.

The small group of athletes originally hailed from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, but for the first time they marched and competed as part of the same team.

Led by Olympian athlete Rose Nathike Lokonyen, the newly-formed Refugee Olympic Team entered the stadium behind the flag of the IOC to a standing ovation.

It was a defining moment – not just for the athletes in particular, but for the Olympic movement entirely.

Refugee Olympic Team receives standing ovation
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Founded in 2015

The formation of the refugee team was announced by IOC President Thomas Bach at the UN General Assembly in October 2015, when the world faced a global refugee crisis that saw the displacement of an estimated 68.5 million people.

Bach’s statement was as clear as it was challenging: the new team would send a message of hope and inclusion to millions of refugees around the world, and its athletes would inspire the world with the strength of their human spirit.

“By welcoming the team of Refugee Olympic Athletes to the Olympic Games Rio 2016, we want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world,” said IOC President Thomas Bach.

“Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic flag and with the Olympic Anthem.

“They will have a home together with all the other 11,000 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees in the Olympic Village,” he said.

The refugee team at Rio 2016 would go on to capture the world’s imagination.

President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach welcomes the Olympic Refugee Team for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games during their welcome ceremony at the Athletes Village (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach welcomes the Olympic Refugee Team for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games during their welcome ceremony at the Athletes Village (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
2016 Getty Images

Rio 2016

Among those who competed for the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio was Ethiopian marathon runner Yonas Kinde.

“The team spirit was beautiful,” recalls the 40-year-old for the Olympic Channel podcast. “I was proud to represent refugees around the world.

“[During my race] I was thinking about all the children who were suffering. Every kilometre, every second. It was a very special moment.”

Kinde now lives and trains in Luxembourg and is looking to qualify for his second Games at Tokyo 2020.

“The Rio Olympics gave me good experience. I am hoping to qualify again,” he said.

“Unfortunately [because of the postponement] it was not possible to have the Olympics this year, but the dream is still there, and our dream will not change.

“The Refugee Olympic Team is a symbol of hope, and my hope is still alive. I am hoping to compete.”

Refugee Athlete Scholarship programme

Kinde is a member of the Refugee Athlete Scholarship programme that was established in 2017 to help refugee athletes with their preparations to qualify for Tokyo 2020, as well as offering professional support and guidance for their sporting careers.

As well as the 10 athletes who took part in Rio 2016, the scholarship also assists 14 athletes who are currently preparing at the Tegla Loroupe Refugee Training Centre in Kenya and 13 new individual athletes who are based around the world.

Among the new Refugee Athlete Scholarship-Holders is Abdullah Sediqi, who was born in Afghanistan and joined the Refugee Athlete Scholarship programme in January 2018 alongside fellow countrymen Farid Walizadeh and Asif Sultani.

The -58kg taekwondo athlete did not compete in Rio, but with support from the programme now harbours a burning desire to make the cut for Tokyo 2020 and achieve his dream of being the best in the world.

“Every night, before I sleep - for ten or fifteen minutes - I am always thinking about that moment [of competing at Tokyo 2020]. I’m always thinking about the Olympics.

“I want to fight against [Republic of Korea’s] Lee Dae-Hoon at the Olympics, and I want to beat him.

“I think if I win against him, my career goes [to the highest] level, because he is the [best] fighter in the world. He's a top fighter.”

Sediqi now resides in Antwerp, Belgium, and credits the Olympic movement for creating a “moment of peace” in troubled times.

“Countries can come together [under the umbrella of] sport,” he says.

“It doesn't matter who you are. Black. White. Woman. Man, or what country they’re from – at the Olympics [they’re] from one place.”

His thoughts are echoed by Khaoula, who arrived in Switzerland in 2014 and is also hoping to secure a place at Tokyo 2020.

“We only have one life, and we have to live positively and not negatively,” she said.

The legacy of the Refugee Olympic Team

The success of the Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016 led to the creation of the Olympic Refuge Foundation just a year later.

The Foundation, which is now in its third year, uses sports-based projects to support refugee populations around the world with a focus on protecting, developing and empowering children in vulnerable situations.

“Joining the first Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016 changed my life, and I am proud to see that it left a concrete legacy,” Yiech Pur Biel, a member of the Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016 and now an ORF Board member, told Olympic.org.

“Through the Olympic Refuge Foundation, our aim is not creating champions, but working every day to improve the lives of young refugees through sport, creating safe environments where they can start building their future”.

Tadesse Abraham is an Eritrean refugee who competed for Switzerland at Rio 2016 and is seeking to qualify for his second Olympics.

Although he has never been a member of the Refugee Olympic Team or Olympic Refuge Foundation, the 37-year-old athlete believes both offer the opportunity for millions of refugees to dream.

“If you are a refugee and you cannot run for your country, there is a solution. No matter where you are, you can compete in the Olympics.

“I want to say to anybody who has left their country not to worry. You can keep on dreaming.

“You can get the support you need. Wake up, train and dream big. Everything is possible.”