An unprecedented number of 206 NOCs will participate in the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, a mere five months from now. Kosovo and South Sudan will make their debut, with high hopes accompanying especially Kosovarian Judoka Majlinda Kelmendi, a two time world champion in the under 52kg class. But there will be a 207th team at the Opening Ceremony…
The International Olympic Committee Executive Board has now agreed on detailed plans for a team of Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA). 43 athletes from various countries of origin have been preseleceted, with approximately five to ten to qualify for the Games. They will live at the Olympic Village, receive a welcoming ceremony (as every other team), will march as the penultimate team (before host Brazil) at the Opening Ceremony, and use the Olympic Flag and Anthem for any official representation (including potential medal ceremonies).
To have athletes participating in the Olympics without an NOC supporting them is unusual but certainly not unheard of. In 1992 several Yugoslav and Macedonian athletes took part as Independent Olympic Participants (IOP) while their country was under UN sanctions in the wake of the Yugoslav Wars. Sydney saw four athletes from East Timor participate during their country’s transition to independence and before the formation of its own NOC. In London 2012 athletes from the former Netherlands Antilles took part as independents with Marathon runner Guor Marial from newly independent South Sudan joining them.
Not even the scale is new. The IOPs in Barcelona consisted of 58 athletes, far more than the ‘5 to 10’ which are now planned for the ROA-team. But it is still, in many ways, a new approach. The ROAs will come from a wide variety of countries torn apart by war, terrorism and violence. They will be a living symbol for the devastating state of humanity in many regions of the world right now. But aren’t they merely ‘used’ for this purpose? Aren’t they being ‘used’ to verify the extensive efforts by the IOC, cooperating with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other inter-governmental agencies and NGOs in the area of humanitarian assistance? By creating a ‘team’ of refugees who are coming from diverse backgrounds with totally different nationalities, most likely even from different continents, isn’t the IOC to some extent stigmatizing them by labeling them ‘refugees’, as if they were a homogenous group, which they clearly aren’t? Those are legitimate questions that have been raised already and that should be raised in the run-up to the Games. Especially when it comes to the question whether this could set a precedent for future Games.
What can be done about the so-called ‘refugee crisis’? Fight the causes that compel people to flee their homes, their countries. Of course, that is what needs to be done. That is what so many countries, especially industrialized nations, have for far too long neglected to do, allowing despots, warlords, terrorist groups and radicalized religious fanatics to emerge. But (1.) this is a long-term solution, nothing that would immediately adress the plight of refugees, people who are often in urgent need of immediate assistance, and (2.) this is not a task for the Olympic Movement.
Don’t get me wrong, the IOC does a lot of humanitarian work, often unnoticed by the media. They have a large number of programmes, working together with UNHCR, WHO, the Red Cross Movement, etc. to alleviate the situation of the most vulnerable parts of societies in many parts of the world, to promote human rights, gender equality, and education, to combat HIV/AIDS, to rehabilitate former child soldiers, and to bring hope, where there seems to be nothing left to hope for. These efforts deserve to receive more publicity, no doubt about that. And if the ROAs shed some light on them, so be it. Yes, it’s self-advertising, and I would condemn it as such, if it were only that. But it isn’t…
The Olympics were founded as a competition between individual athletes and (depending on the sport and discipline) teams, not between nations. 120 years after the 1896 Olympics in Athens, athletes are still being sent to compete in them by National Olympic Committees, not national governments. Indeed the IOC and other sports authorities have been known to show ‘allergic reactions’ when faced with governmental or other political interference in the issues of NOCs, following the boycotts of the cold war era, and in some cases culminating in the suspension of entire NOCs (Kuwait is currently suspended. Its athletes will most likely compete in Rio, but only using the Olympic Flag and Anthem.).
In that regard, the refugee ‘team’ does not constitute any sort of national distinction. It doesn’t necessarily create the impression of a homogenous group. These are merely individual athletes who are, according to the athletic merits, capable of competing in the Olympics and just lacking any National Olympic Committee to turn to, which would accept them as members of its team. It has been done in the past, to enable talented athletes who have reached the qualification criteria to participate in the Games, should their individual situation, without their own fault, hinder them from being nominated by an NOC. That last part is the only missing step for these athletes. If you look at it that way, it’s not a big deal, after all. Not much more than a bureaucratic issue, or so it seems. But to those athletes, whose dreams will come true, even in the darkest of times, this ‘not so big deal’ will mean everything.