Of the 233 countries and dependent territories in the world, only 56 of them have populations greater than 21.3 million. Regardless of their population, though, what all 233 of these countries and dependent territories have in common is a place — a stretch of land to call their own. By this virtue, most of these places are able to compete in the Olympic Games representing a flag and peoples that they share numerous commonalities with.
This year, however, a group of people numbering 21.3 million without their own land were represented at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics for the first time: the “Refugee Olympic Team.”
The team consisted of 10 athletes from various regions of the world — five from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and one from Ethiopia — all of whom had been displaced by their home nations because of war or other extreme danger. And beginning Sept. 7, two more refugees will represent the Refugee Olympic Team at the Paralympic Games, one from Syria and one from Iran.
In a moment when there are more displaced people in the world than even the post-World War II era, the global community as a whole is being confronted with a situation heretofore unseen to most of us. Because the Olympics can be considered the peak of ardent nationalism in sports, the inclusion of a population that is essentially “nationless” signifies the extremely dire nature of the current refugee plight.
Because Olympic teams are funded by their nations, the Olympic Committee had to set up a separate fund for the Refugee Olympic Team in order to allow them to compete. The fund was created by the Olympic Solidarity Commission, which covered the preparation, travel and participation fees for the team. Additionally, the International Olympic Committee set up a fund equivalent to 2 million U.S. dollars in order to continue developing sporting and other relief projects throughout the world.
“Sports cannot do everything in the world. But sports can definitely create an atmosphere of peace and mutual respect,” said honorary IOC President Jacques Rogge. “So people coming from different ethnic groups, different regions, languages and cultures live peacefully and friendly together.”
His statement is touching and pertinent, and it certainly explains the importance of the inclusion of the refugee team in the Rio Olympics, but it is just one piece of the solution. Sports are definitely a good way to promote camaraderie and cooperation between people of differing backgrounds, but for this to happen, there must first be policies and programs that can allow refugees to enter safe nations.
But many of the nations that could offer the safest options for refugees are beginning to close their borders, fearing that asylum seekers will commit acts of terrorism and violent crime. Germany, which had previously been extremely open to refugees, has recently adopted policies limiting the number of refugees and asylum seekers that can enter, leaving many — particularly those from the Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Iraq — without knowledge of a safe or even certain future.
Currently, Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon are the three nations hosting the most refugees in the world. This leaves one to wonder where the United States and European nations are in the throes of all this. These countries, though not uninvolved, have failed to bear their share of the refugee burden, which reflects poorly on their status as leaders in the world.
So what can the sporting community do to help these million people? First off, the IOC can continue to fund programs that promote athletic (and thus political and social) cooperation between refugees and their hosts. The IOC can also, throughout the course of the Paralympic Games, speak about and show the serious nature of the refugee situation. Athletes, particularly those who play in areas that have historically had issues with racism or anti-refugee sentiments, can speak out about acceptance and unity in their area. Sporting companies, such as Adidas, can make donations to NGOs and nonprofit organizations (such as the Olympic Solidarity Commission) that can further aid refugees.
There are certainly things to be done about the current state of refugees and displaced peoples in the world, and the sporting world has both the resources and clout to do something about it.
As Rogge said, “Our duty is to introduce sports to refugee camps, build infrastructure, education and training.”
Sophie Goethals writes the column about social issues in the world of sports and their potential ramifications. Contact her at [email protected]