The Refugee Olympic Team

By: Danielle Ser

This past summer, a global audience watched as their nation’s teams competed in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  A media frenzy surrounded these Olympic Games with topics ranging from the Zika virus and its possible effect on athletes and onlookers to Brazil’s poverty-stricken areas to Ryan Lochte’s mishap with Brazilian law enforcement.  Another divisive topic made its way to Olympic headlines, as the International Olympic Committee announced the formation of the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT).[1]

History & Background

The International Olympic Committee was formed on June 23, 1894 and acts as the supreme authority of the Olympic Movement.[2]  Its stated goal “is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind, in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”[3]  Two other major constituents of the Olympic Movement are the International Sports Federations and the National Olympic Committees.[4]

The Olympic Charter is a constitutional-like document detailing Olympic regulations and policies, including who may participate in the Olympic Games.[5]  The Rule 40 bye-law outlines that the International Sports Federations establishes rules for participation in the Olympics, but are submitted to the International Olympic Committee Board for approval.[6]  Rule 41 governs competitor nationality where an Olympic athlete must be a national of the country of National Olympic Committee who enters that athlete, and the International Olympic Committee resolves all matters relating to determination of country which athletes may represent.[7]

The 2016 Refugee Olympic Team

On March 2, 2016, the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board created the ROT.[8]  The National Olympic Committees identified forty-three potential athletes to represent the Refugee Olympic Athletes team, and ten athletes were ultimately named to the team.  To be nominated, officials considered athlete sporting level, official refugee status verified by the UN, personal history, and background.  The athletes selected to the team were accorded the honor of marching in the Opening Ceremony with the Olympic flag before Brazil, the host nation, and during medal ceremonies, the Olympic flag was to be raised and the Olympic anthem to be played.[9]  Furthermore, they lived together in the Olympic Village, just as other teams.  The athletes expressed gratitude that they participated in the Olympic games, lived among the other athletes, met new people, and traveled to new places.[10]

The athletes chosen came from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.[11]  They competed in swimming, judo, marathon running, and medium-distance running.[12]

Conclusion

Forming the Refugee Olympic Team was a strong statement acknowledging that refugees have a place in the world and can represent something greater than themselves, without having a per se home nation.  Creation of this team is not the first time the International Olympic Committee has assisted the refugee crisis.  For example, they created a two-million-dollar special fund to develop relief projects through sport in collaboration with National Olympic Committees around the world.[13]  The International Olympic Committee President stated that the Refugee Olympic Team would be

“a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society. 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.”[14]

[1] Press Release, International Olympic Committee, Refugee Olympic Team to Shine Spotlight on Worldwide Refugee Crisis, (June 3, 2016), https://www.olympic.org/news/refugee-olympic-team-to-shine-spotlight-on-worldwide-refugee-crisis.

[2] https://www.olympic.org/about-ioc-institution (last visited Nov. 6, 2016).

[3] Id.

[4] Olympic Charter, International Olympic Committee, (Aug. 2, 2016), https://stillmed.olympic.org/media/Document%20Library/OlympicOrg/General/EN-Olympic-Charter.pdf#_ga=1.187985640.1588709296.1478389429.

[5] Id. at 77.

[6] Id.

[7] Id. at 78.

[8] Press Release, International Olympic Committee, Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA) Created by the IOC, (Mar. 2, 2016), https://www.olympic.org/news/team-of-refugee-olympic-athletes-roa-created-by-the-ioc.

[9] Press Release, International Olympic Committee, Refugee Olympic Team to Shine Spotlight on Worldwide Refugee Crisis, (June 3, 2016), https://www.olympic.org/news/refugee-olympic-team-to-shine-spotlight-on-worldwide-refugee-crisis.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/rio-2016-refugee-olympic-team.html (last visited Nov. 6, 2016).

[13] Press Release, International Olympic Committee, Refugee Olympic Team to Shine Spotlight on Worldwide Refugee Crisis, (June 3, 2016), https://www.olympic.org/news/refugee-olympic-team-to-shine-spotlight-on-worldwide-refugee-crisis.

[14] Id.