These are the refugee athletes at the Tokyo Olympics

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Johnny Wood, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • A refugee Olympic team first appeared at the Rio Games in 2016.
  • Funded by IOC sponsorship, 29 displaced athletes have made the Tokyo 2020 team.
  • The team’s participation helps highlight the global refugee crisis.

Representing your country at an Olympic Games is an experience most athletes will never forget, but competitors displaced from their home nation are denied this honour.

Marching under the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo games, 29 displaced athletes are competing as part of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team.

First formed at the Rio games in 2016, the team is now home to refugees from eleven countries, competing across 12 sports, who have received International Olympic Committee sponsorship funding to make it to Tokyo.

this chart shows that the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has more than doubled in a decade.
The number of forcibly displaced people worldwide has more than doubled in a decade. Image: UNHCR

Together, they represent the 82.4 million people globally who have been forcibly displaced.

Here are just three stories of Olympians who have fled their homelands but are united by sport – as well as courage, strength, determination and hope.

Cycling to Tokyo 2020

pictured here is Ahmad Badreddin Wais, who is a four-time UCI Road World Champion time trial participant
Ahmad Badreddin Wais is a four-time UCI Road World Champion time trial participant. Image: IOC

Syrian-born road cyclist Ahmad Badreddin Wais has competed in the time trial event at four senior UCI Road World Championships and is part of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team.

He took up cycling aged 14 while living in his home town of Aleppo, before moving to the Syrian capital Damascus to join the national team. Having competed at the 2009 UCI Road World Championships for juniors – a first for the country – Badreddin finished 32nd at the Asian Championships road race as a senior rider in 2014.

That year was significant for another reason. Following the outbreak of war, Badreddin fled his war-ravaged homeland, escaping first to Lebanon, then Turkey and on to Greece by boat on a perilous journey across the Medditeranian sea, eventually settling with a friend’s family in Lausanne, Switzerland. It would be three years before he could resume competition.

“Those were very, very tough moments in my life,” he told The New Indian Express.

Settled in his new host country, he moved to Hindelbank near Bern and resumed training. In 2017, he competed in the first of four consecutive senior UCI road cycling championships and achieved some impressive time trial results in other races, including a top-ten finish at the 2019 Asian Championships. His sights are now fixed on the Olympic time trial event.

On track for Olympic success

As one of 10 athletes that made up the original IOC Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016, this is the second time Anjelina Nadai Lohalith has made it onto the team and to an Olympic finals.

In Tokyo, the South Sudan-born middle distance runner is hoping to progress through to the second round of the 1,500 metres track race, and improve on her performance in Brazil. Anjelina set her personal best time of the distance competing at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London.

Between Games, as well as training and competing, Anjelina has become a mother and attended the One Young World Summit in Ottawa, Canada, which is a global forum for youth leaders to discuss issues facing the world.

She now lives in Kenya, having fled war-torn South Sudan with her aunt in 2002 seeking safety from conflict in the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya. She hasn’t seen her parents since escaping, but being reunited with them remains a strong motivation.

“Everything was destroyed,” she said to the UNHCR agency in 2016, describing the impact of the war reaching her home village.

At high school in Kenya, Anjelina’s running strengths became apparent and she was selected by the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation to train near the country’s capital Nairobi. Tegla was the first African athlete to win the New York marathon and now uses her success to select talented athletes from refugee camps, supporting their ambitions to reach the Olympics.

In between training, Anjelina finds time to mentor young athletes as part of the Sport at the Service of Humanity foundation.

Fighting for refugees

Boxing has taught Olympic hopeful Eldric Samuel Sella Rodriguez about respect, empathy, modesty and discipline.

He grew up in a tough neighbourhood in Venezuela, and at the age of nine enrolled in the boxing gym a block from home to learn how to fight and defend himself against others.

It was a decision that would see him win his first junior national championship in the 15 to 16 age group and go on to join Venezuela’s national boxing team at the age of 18.

When economic collapse in his home country in 2014 led to poverty and violence, he made the difficult decision to leave his family and friends and seek sanctuary in Trinidad and Tobago.

He survived by doing manual jobs, cement mixing, painting, cutting grass, always dreaming of making it to the Olympics.

pictured is boxer Eldric Samuel Sella Rodriguez, who is taking part in the Tokyo Olympics
Eldric Samuel Sella Rodriguez, who is taking part in the Tokyo Olympics. Image: Instagram/elsella24

Becoming an IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship holder has put his Olympic hopes back on track.

“In this program, I will have the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games and represent not only me, but millions of people around the world who, like me, were forced to leave their home and dreams behind,” he says.

Look out for athletes competing under the refugee team’s official “EOR” designation – équipe olympique des réfugiés. They have had to overcome enormous challenges to take their place in the refugee parade behind the Olympic flag.

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