Olympic Newsweek II – Light in the darkness

The Refugee Olympic Team for the Rio 2016 Games is taking shape, as ten athletes have been nominated by the International Olympic Committee. Ten young men and women from four different countries, each of them with a totally different background, including diverse circumstances that forced them to flee their homes. All ten of them talented athletes at the international level who found themselves in a seemingly hopeless situation, belonging to no National Olympic Committee which could include them in their team for Rio. Ten people who went through the darkest of times, persevered, and who are now given their well deserved chance to fulfill their Olympic dream.

Each of them will have a different story to tell, and some of these are truly breathtaking. As is the case with 17-year old Yusra Mardini. Despite her young age already an accomplished swimmer, whose career led her to several national titles in her home country Syria, she even represented Syria at the short-course World Championships in Istanbul, four years ago. When the war forced her and her family to flee her home in Damascus, she went to Turkey before crossing the Aegean Sea on an inflatable dinghy, en route to Lesbos. They were off the Turkish coast when the motor suddenly stopped and the boat began to take in water. There were twenty people on board and most of them couldn’t swim. Yusra could…

Together with her sister and two other refugees, she jumped into the water. They pushed and pulled the boat towards the Greek shore. Through the Aegean Sea, miles away from the shore, in a desperate attempt to save their own lives and those of the other people in the boat. It took them several hours until they finally reached the island of Lesbos. Not a single life was lost that day, while for thousands from Africa and the Middle East, the Mediterranean Sea had already become a mass grave, immediately off the shores of Europe.

Yusra Mardini travelled on through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria until she reached Germany in September 2015. With the help of a German NGO she got in contact with Wasserfreunde Spandau, a renowned swimming club in Berlin. There she was even luckier to find valuable support in the person of her new coach Sven Spannekrebs, whose efforts went far beyond what is normally expected of a trainer, including help with the several obstacles of German bureaucracy, and other ‘every-day issues’.

And now, this girl will become an Olympic athlete. Probably one of the most unlikely Olympians, given her circumstances, but at the same time, the most deserving. And if anyone might ask me during the next months to explain what the ‘Olympic Spirit’ really means, I’ll tell them about Yusra Mardini, and they’ll understand.


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