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The Olympic team of refugees presents a large contingent in Japan, with around thirty sportsmen and women from ten countries. Among them, taekwondoist Kimia Alizadeh, bronze medalist at the Rio 2016 Games, who then chose to leave Iran for political reasons.
On their bibs, three capital letters replace the name of the country that each athlete represents: ROT for Refugee Olympic Team, namely the Refugee Olympic Team (EOR). Their delegation will number 29 sportsmen and women in Japan (21 men and 8 women), almost three times more than in previous Olympics. Six of the ten athletes present in Rio will once again compete at the Tokyo Games.
The Rio Games marked the great debut of this selection. Eager to help elite athletes hit by the global refugee crisis, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has released funds to help finance this team. “We wish to send a message of hope to all refugees in the world,” said IOC President Thomas Bach at the time. And to continue: “While they have no national team to belong to, nor any flag behind which to parade, nor any national anthem, these athletes will be welcome at the Olympic Games behind the Olympic flag and anthem (…). They will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies they have had to face, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, gifts, strength or mental ability. “
In Brazil, 10 sportsmen and women from South Sudan, Syria, DR Congo and Ethiopia were able to participate in athletics, judo and swimming events. Their flag bearer was the South Sudanese Rose Nathike Lokonyen, a specialist in the 800 meters, who finished 7th in her qualifying series. The young woman, a refugee in Kenya, then received an athlete’s scholarship to continue training and be able to compete in international competitions. She will once again defend the colors of the refugee team in Japan, with the firm intention of achieving a better performance.
Yiech Pur Biel will also play his second Olympics. He is also from South Sudan, which he had to flee at the age of 10, and will line up for the distance of 800 meters. A member of the Board of Directors of the Olympic Foundation for Refugees, he has participated in recent years in numerous activities and initiatives aimed at helping uprooted young people all over the world to practice sports. And in August 2020 he became the goodwill ambassador of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Kimia Alizadeh, Iran’s first Olympic medalist
The delegation in Japan includes an Olympic medalist, taekwendoist Kimia Alizadeh. Iran’s flag bearer in 2016, she was the first Iranian to win an Olympic medal, bronze in the under 57 kilogram category. In January 2020, she announced to leave her country for good with her husband, criticizing the “hypocrisy” of a system which, according to her, uses her sportswomen for political ends and only “humiliates” them.
Kimia Alizadeh found refuge in the Netherlands and then in Germany. Aged 21, she hopes to be able to obtain German nationality soon. She will logically represent in Japan one of the best hopes of medals for the refugee team.
In 2016, Kimia Alizadeh proudly dedicated her victory to the women of her country. “I am happy, not only for myself but also for all Iranian girls because this medal opens the way for other girls to get other medals,” she said at the time. A feminist fight carried out by another athlete, the Afghan cyclist Masomah Alizada, a refugee in France with her family.
“I want to show all the men who think that cycling is not for women that […] all women, from any country, who want to ride a bike can do so, that it’s only a passion, that it’s our choice to wear the clothes we want, in which we are at the ‘comfortable,’ said the young woman in a video from the International Cycling Union (UCI).
Contacted by Infomigrants after the announcement of the selection for Tokyo of Masomah Alizada, Thierry Communal, one of his coaches in France, insisted on the importance of the message carried by this young woman of 24 years who has always been able to count on the support of his father in Afghanistan for the practice of this sport, in spite of the threats, the insults even the throwing of stones.
A Paralympic team of refugees
No less than nine members of this Olympic team are from Syria, where war has been raging for more than ten years, pushing millions of people into exile. Swimmer Yusra Mardini is one of these Syrian athletes and is preparing to compete in her second Olympics. She had told the New York Times before the Rio Olympics how she had fled Syria by taking a seat on a frail boat heading for Greece. She had sunk and then had to swim for hours to stay alive.
The 23-year-old Aram Mahmoud will participate in his first Games in Japan, in the badminton event. Refugee for six years in the Netherlands, he joined a German club last season. In an interview with the CNN channel site, he spoke of the reasons for his departure. “Leaving my family, my friends, my homeland was really the most difficult thing. I decided to flee Syria because I wanted to have a better future and to be safe, to lead a normal life. another reason is that I wanted to have more chances to continue my career as a badminton player. “
These motivations are a common point for almost all the members of this very special delegation. Despite the obstacles, these sportsmen and women have not given up on their Olympic dream, hoping that this world meeting will allow them to highlight those who are fighting for a similar fate. The IOC has also created this year a Paralympic Refugee Team made up of six athletes. And all will resound, in the event of victory, the Olympic anthem created in 1896 for the Games in Athens.