On August 5, 2016, ten athletes who made up the Refugee Olympic Team made history and captured the hearts of the world as they walked into the Maracanã Stadium at the Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony, directly ahead of host nation Brazil.
At that moment, the first Refugee Olympic Team to compete at an Olympic Games was introduced to the world. Walking under the Olympic flag, they joined the greatest athletes on the planet and sent a message of inspiration to displaced people around the world. To talk about their ‘journey to the Olympic Games’ would not do their stories justice.
They embodied the power of sport in Rio, and today the Refugee Olympic Team have been presented with the Laureus Sport for Good Award for Sporting Inspiration ahead of the 2017 Laureus World Sports Awards in Monaco.
They were announced as winners at a press conference by Laureus Academy Member and chair of the IOC Coordination Commission for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Nawal El Moutawakel:
“The Refugee Olympic Team was one of the sporting stories of 2016. We talk about resilience and determination as being key attributes of successful athletes, this team has it in droves. They embody Nelson Mandela’s message that sport can instil hope where once there was only despair.”
The team was led by Chef de Mission and Laureus Academy Member Tegla Loroupe, one of the greatest distance runners in history:
“This award is for the 65.4 million displaced people globally, who cannot go to their homes because of strife. Each of the ten inspirational people in our team have triumphed over adversity and endured unimaginable journeys to get to the start line. We were not in Rio to win medals; we were there with the help of the IOC and the UNHCR to use sport to send a message of hope and positivity to people around the world. More work needs to be done to solve the refugee crisis. We need to work together to make the world a more peaceful place for all people.”
The bond between Loroupe and her athletes was clear as many of the members of the team described her as their ‘mother’. The team hailed from Syria, Congo, Ethiopia and South Sudan competed in athletics, swimming and judo during the Games. They were not just representing their troubled home nations, but the world.
At the press conference, Tegla Loroupe was accompanied by Refugee Olympic Team members, South Sudanese 800m runner Yiech Pur Biel and Syrian Swimmer Rami Anis. At tomorrow’s Laureus World Sports Awards Ceremony in Monaco, they will be joined on stage by Ethiopian marathon runner Yonas Kinde, to accept the coveted Laureus statuette.
Aged nine, Yiech Pur Biel was left to fend by himself in the bush as his mother and younger brothers fled the final stages of Sudanese civil war in 2005. He hasn’t heard from his family since. Left alone, he fended for himself in the bush, eating any fruits or leaves he could find, striving for survival away from warfare. Biel’s journey took him to a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya.
Here, he met Tegla Loroupe and learnt how to run. Through the work of the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, he was afforded the lifechanging opportunity to attend a refugee athletics camp in N’ngo. Ten months later, Yiech was on the start line in Rio preparing to run against the best in the world:
“To be here to receive this award from these sporting legends is hard for me to imagine. In Rio, we joined best athletes in the world and proved that although we are refugees, we can be part of the biggest sporting event on the planet. Sport has given me hope, and I believe that we can give confidence and inspiration to our fellow refugees.” said Biel.
Rami Anis grew up in the Syrian capital of Aleppo. A talented swimmer from a young age, he was one of the countries brightest young sports stars, competing as part of Syria’s national team. Anis said:
“This award means so much. Not just to the Refugee Olympic Team, but also to the people who have shown us support in our journey to the Olympic Games. Sport gives everyone a chance, and what happened at the Rio Olympics showed people around the world who have trouble and fear in their lives that there is hope.”
In 2011, with growing unrest in the city, Rami fled, like so many others around him. A journey to Europe, via Turkey and the dangerous sea crossing to Greece. The boat’s motor failed, and then Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and finally Belgium. He returned to training, pushed his body to the limit, and was selected as one of the ten athletes to represent Refugee Olympic Team. In Rio, Rami recorded a new personal best in the heats of the 100m freestyle.