The Olympics is ‘Team Refugees.’ What about the rest of us?

By Sayomi Ariyawansa
Rae Allen/flickr

The Olympic Games has had a touchy relationship with politics.

Notoriously, African-Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos (who won gold and bronze in the 200m) were expelled from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City for displaying the Black Power salute on the podium while the American national anthem Star-Spangled Banner played. This was considered “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit” – a domestic political statement that was unacceptable and contrary to the apolitical nature of the Olympic Games unlike, apparently, the Nazi salute (which was allowed during the Berlin Olympics in 1936).

More recently, Rio 2016 has been plagued with allegations of human rights abuses. It has been claimed that over 4,000 families (some reports have the number as high as 77,000 people) have been displaced as a result of forcible relocations, with thousands of children losing access to basic education, healthcare and other essential social services. In a country where rates of poverty and disadvantage are high, massive amounts of money have been diverted to the construction of Olympic infrastructure which, experience shows, inevitably fall into disuse and disrepair.

With this in mind, what are we to think of the Refugee Olympic Team?

International sporting events – particularly the Olympic Games – are wont to release nationalist fervour. It makes a spectacle out of it, even at a cost to the nation’s citizens themselves. And sport itself is deeply tribal. Whether municipal, national or international, it’s us and them, winners and losers. It’s zero-sum. You pick a side and stick to it. There’s nothing more disgraceful than a fair-weather fan.

With the chequered history of the International Olympic Committee in mind, this embrace of refugees as individuals and also as a collective is phenomenal.

Yet the International Olympic Committee have thought it fit to introduce, for the first time, an Olympic team of ten refugees under the banner of the five rings to act as “a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide and bring global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis.” Thinking of those athletes striding across the stadium ground – healthy and safe and beaming with joy – makes my eyes well up, every time. It’s an uncomfortable feel-good moment.

For on one hand, refugees represent the antithesis of ferocious and unthinking nationalism. Refugees and other forced migrants blur the neat boundaries of citizenship and what it means. Indeed, refugees are in such a precarious position precisely because the bonds of citizenship and nationalism have failed them abjectly. With the chequered history of the International Olympic Committee in mind, this embrace of refugees as individuals and also as a collective is phenomenal. It is a message that the plight of refugees worldwide has transcended the political – instead, their plight is the barometer of our own humanity.

But on the other hand we are cheering for this hand-picked, unimaginably talented group of young refugees from afar. With Brexit, the spectre of Donald Trump, and the rise of One Nation and other extreme right-wing groups, we cannot kid ourselves. Though our collective emotions and hopes seem to run high for this small group, we are failing the rest.

The revelations from the Nauru files, the leaked reports of horrifying levels of child abuse in Australia’s Nauru detention centre, (including sexual assault and endemic instances of child self-harm) is significant and damaging evidence of Australia’s flagrant disregard for the basic human rights of the most vulnerable group of refugees, children.

But even in this context, the message of the International Olympic Committee should not be dismissed as mere symbolism. It is an overt recognition of internationalism and of overlooking national borders in the interests of humanity from a historically cautious and conservative organisation. In an increasingly partisan world the enduring appeal of the Olympic Games cuts across political spectrums, meaning the International Olympic Committee has seized on a rare opportunity to engage with one of the largest and most diverse global audiences.

The creation of the Refugee Olympic Team is a significant act of re-humanising and de-victimising refugees worldwide.

Although we may, rightly, be deeply sceptical about whether this goodwill can lead to any substantive political change, this act of raising the profile of refugees is singularly unique: the International Olympic Committee has turned refugee advocate. We are yet to see what fruit this brings to bear, and whether this message will be heeded, but the creation of the Refugee Olympic Team is a significant act of re-humanising and de-victimising refugees worldwide.

The coming together of the Refugee Olympic Team is no small feat. It is the exact inverse of how the vast majority of refugees are treated worldwide. It is an act of solidarity and friendship requiring considerable investment and planning in the futures of ten athletes, for the hope and inspiration of millions of others around the world. It is, in the words of Pierre Coubertin from many decades ago, “an act of faith in the future”.


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