The new Refugee Olympic Team arrives for the opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro Aug. 5. In a personal message addressed to each of the 10 members of the Refugee Olympic Team, Pope Francis wished them success in their events and thanked them for the witness they are giving the world. (CNS photo/David Gray, Reuters)
This editorial originally appeared in the Aug. 18 issue of Catholic New York, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York.
They will not bring home the gold medals of U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps, nor will they inspire the roar of the crowd at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in the same way as legendary Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. Nonetheless, the members of the new Refugee Olympic Team deserve their own laurels for overcoming significant obstacles in life as well as for their athletic pursuits in Brazil.
The 10 athletes on the team hail from conflict-ravaged lands such as Syria in the Middle East and the African nations of Congo, Ethiopia and South Sudan, the country of origin of fully one-half of the tiny roster.
Their personal life stories are filled with displacements due to strife and war, and resettlements in other lands, often in refugee camps. For the members of the Refugee Olympic Team, sports have served as an avenue of normalcy and consistency in an environment that often has been unpredictable and unsafe.
Walking together under the Olympic flag during the opening ceremonies, they gave powerful witness to the ability of this worldwide competition to put a spotlight on an issue that has tested, and even vexed, nations across the globe, especially in recent months and years. Even without standing behind the flags of their native countries, they were proud Olympians.
After a first-round loss in the women’s judo competition, Yolande Bukasa, originally from Congo, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “I’m very happy even having lost, because I had the chance to fight at the Olympics. Someday I think there will be a plaque commemorating the fact that I took part in the 2016 Olympics.”
International Olympic Committee Chairman Thomas Bach said, “These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”
The IOC deserves credit for working with affiliate groups to identify and assist potential elite athletes affected by the worldwide refugee crisis.
No less a world figure and eminent spiritual leader than Pope Francis paid tribute to the Refugee Olympic Team as the Games were about to get under way, offering his hope that the members’ “courage and strength find expression through the Olympic Games and serve as a cry for peace and solidarity.”
At his weekly audience Aug. 3, the Holy Father expressed a desire that the Games would inspire an outcome where victories would be measured not in medals, but in “the creation of a civilization where there reigns solidarity founded on the recognition that we are all members of one human family, no matter the differences of culture, skin color or religion.”
Few spectacles continue to command the attention of the world’s nations and people in the same way as the quadrennial games, staggered in summer and winter stagings. We marvel at the athletic skills on display and the dedication and effort that bring them to the fore. We are often left shaking our heads in amazement as records are shattered and Olympic champions are crowned.
Those feats will continue to get the lion’s share of the accolades, as they should. We would do well to remember the Refugee Olympic Team. Their strides were significant, too.