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With No Flag to Carry, Refugee Athletes Have Message of Unity in Rio

20 Apr, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

In the run-up to the Olympics, it’s not uncommon to find several U.S. athletes lobbying to be the one who leads the team into Opening Ceremonies by carrying the flag. And the drama can get pretty intense (and even unpleasant) before that flag-bearer is named.

For another group of athletes, though, there is no flag to fight over. They’re refugees from war-torn areas including the Central African Republic (CAR) and over the last four years, they have fled their homes and are living in camps. They’re 2012 or 2008 Olympians or aspiring Olympians who represent an array of sports – martial arts, track & field, even soccer. They spend their days trying to survive, trying to train and trying to keep up the spirits of the influx of young refugees who look up to them, seeing them as a bright spot in an otherwise bleak existence.

And this year, they might just be the biggest heroes of the Games, whether or not they are in medal contention. A special team of Refugee Olympic Athletes has been established and will compete at August's Games in Rio like any other team, according to an article in Inside The Games. The group, officially called Team Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA for short), will march behind the Olympic Flag second to last before host nation Brazil at the Opening Ceremony on August 5.

Previously, athletes could only compete if they were representing a country. There was a classification for athletes from new countries, or countries that had no national Olympic Committee: Individual Olympic Participants and later, Independent Olympic Athletes, and it was used by athletes from East Timor at Sydney, and by a runner from South Sudan in London, as well as by others throughout the years. The team of refugee athletes, by contrast, represents the IOC’s attempt to address a displaced population.

“By welcoming the team of refugee athletes, we want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world,” said IOC President Thomas Bach following an Executive Board meeting in early March. “Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic Flag and with the Olympic Anthem. They will have a home together with all the other 11,000 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees in the Olympic Village. They will enjoy the same privileges as every other athlete competing at the Games.”

Refugee athletes will have their own chef, coaches, technical officials and other entourage members as befits a national contingent.

Bach added, “If you have 60 million displaced persons, more now than at any time in the history of mankind, then among them must be some athletes.”

A group of 43 potential athletes has been identified. A final roster will be compiled in June.

Team uniforms will be provided by the IOC. If any athletes were to win medals, the Olympic Anthem would be played at medal ceremonies.

The idea of medals, though, is a long shot. An article in CNN noted that when many refugee athletes ran to escape the violence in their countries, they left behind their trainers, coaches, equipment and all athletic facilities and apparel. Even teams were scattered and separated.

“I’ve lost almost two years. I would like to develop my sporting talent, because I don’t know when the war will finish. The more I stay here, the more I will lose my talent,” Teddy Gossengha, a professional soccer player, told a reporter.

Gossengha is one of an unlikely group of pro athletes and Olympians who are living in a refugee camp in the Congo. Another is CAR karate champion Martial Nantouna. By day, they scrape out a living and train however they can. By night, they pray.

“I ask God to bring peace back to my country.” Nantouna said. “But I am still on the national team. If someone tells me to go to the mat, I will go.”

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