Sporting prowess aside, Rio 2016 was not a vintage Olympics. Cameras panned over myriads of empty seats; medallists were reduced to tears by the baying, partisan assemblage in the stands; white American swimmers entrenched their unimpeachable privilege. Ultimately, the biggest crime was awarding the Olympics in the first place to a country whose kleptocratic hegemony has dishoused and further disempowered those in abject poverty.
Brazil is a country ripe with disenfranchisement. Police officers are responsible for around one in five deaths in Rio de Janeiro, whilst police violence against favelas and marginalised areas (and notably young black men) peaked during the preparations for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. This is not even to touch upon the ongoing ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples – in particular the Guarani-Kaiowa tribe – in southern Brazil by exploiters of the Amazon rainforests.
Whilst in many ways Rio has set no example for humanitarian care, we can draw one major positive from the games: the first refugee team ever to compete at the Olympics. For these athletes, their chosen sport was also a mode of escape from what they left behind. It would be difficult to find a more consummate paradigm of sport as a source of refuge. Even before the games, South Sudanese 800m runner Biel recognised the sustenance which running had provided.
“There are two times in my life that I’ve cried,” Biel said. “When my mother left me and when I was chosen to go to be on the team (…) Some people, when you say the word ‘refugee,’ they think, ‘they are violent.’ We will show the world that as refugees, we can do anything that a human being can do.”
It is remarkable that Biel even needs to state the fact that refugees are humans. But as the world focussed on the Aquatics Stadium and the searing sidewalks of the Guanabara Bay, it would be easy to believe wrongly that sporting dedication is afforded to just a handful of refugees.
“Some people, when you say the word ‘refugee,’ they think, ‘they are violent.’ We will show the world that as refugees, we can do anything that a human being can do.”
Yiech Pur Biel
Take for instance Zaatari, a refugee camp in Jordan which contains over 80 000 Syrians, more than half of which are children. To mark World Refugee Day in 2015, UNHCR, UEFA and the Asian Football Development Project organised a football tournament which involved 40 girls’ and boys’ teams from the camp, and concluded in a match with the tournament winners and Jordan’s U15 national team.
On a day-to-day basis, coaches such as Abeer Rantisi, a star of the Jordanian women’s national team, organise training sessions within the camp. Abeer coaches Syrian girls and young women, many of whom have never played football before. Overall, more than 1000 children and young adults are in the Zaatari sports project, with about 100 being trained to coach at any one time. As Bassam Omar al Taleb, a Syrian refugee and football coach in the camp, tells CNN, sport is a step towards rehabilitating the displaced. “They have seen their family members killed before their eyes and the journey to Jordan is a difficult one,” he says. “Through football we at least try to remove the sense of fear and regain some sense of normalcy.”
This is a notion which UNHCR itself strongly advocates, under the belief that sports programmes can help alleviate psychosocial problems as well as health issues. For children in particular, sport provides a forum for development, most notably for refugee girls whose avenues for growth are in many ways limited by cultural restrictions. As highlighted by Dr. Jacques Rogge, former president of the IOC, “sport cannot cure all the world’s ills, but can contribute to meaningful solutions.” Sport plays a significant role in social integration, in the promotion of ideals of tolerance and non-violence, and in the normalisation of post-disaster life.
As further evidence for the gateways that sport can offer to refugees, we need only look as far as Chicago Bulls player Luol Deng, a former refugee from South Sudan who had to make a new life in England at the age of 9 without speaking a word of English. Deng says, “It was hard for me to communicate with people and it was hard for me to reach out – a different culture, a different language – it was just really hard to make friends. But one thing I noticed was that whenever we played football, people wanted to pick me to be on their team. And I noticed that I was closer to the guys when we were playing. It didn’t matter if I spoke the language or not, they wanted to win and so they would pick me. And when we won, we would celebrate together.”
The presence of the Refugee Olympics Team in Rio will have far-reaching consequences beyond its transforming effects on the athletes themselves. Role models are essential to the sporting motivation of children whose feelings of isolation and dislocation can only be counteracted – during a time of unthinkable stasis – by some kind of purpose. The hope is that the Refugee Olympic Team have set a target to which young refugees the world over can begin to aspire.