Responding to the global refugee crisis — and leveraging an opportunity to further its original mission of conveying hope and solidarity — the International Olympic Game recently approved the establishment of a Refugee Olympic Team that will compete at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
“In an ideal world, we would not need to have a Refugee Team at the Olympic Games,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement. “But, unfortunately, the reasons why we first created a Refugee Olympic Team before the Olympic Games Rio 2016 continue to persist. We will do our utmost to welcome refugee athletes and give them a home and a flag in the Olympic Village in Tokyo with all the Olympic athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees. This is the continuation of an exciting, human and Olympic journey, and a reminder to refugees that they are not forgotten.”
In 2015, the IOC formed the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, which featured 10 athletes chosen from a pool of more than 40 potential candidates with United Nations-verified refugee status. They originally hailed from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and they competed under the Olympic flag.
For 2020, the IOC has more time to build a larger Refugee Olympic Team. Bach told Inside the Games that the committee already has identified more than 50 potential Olympians.
“Last time in Rio, we were under very high time pressure — now we have two years,” he said.
“We have already taken precautions and we have a pool of athletes in place.”
Since the Rio Olympics, the IOC reports that it has continued to support the 10 Refugee Olympians, as well as a number of other refugee athletes across five continents via the Olympic Solidarity Refugee Athlete Support programme. Through scholarships, which come in the form of monthly training grants and fixed competition subsidies, Olympic Solidarity and host National Olympic Committees help the refugee athletes prepare for and participate in national and international competitions.
Despite the feel-good nature of this story, the reality of the situation was not lost on Bach. “There is one unfortunate reason for the creation of this team,” he told Inside the Games. “This is the fact that the reasons we created the first-ever team still persist.”