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The Refugee Olympic Team

For everyone watching the Tokyo Olympic Games, a special team may have caught your attention as well as the world’s. The 2020 Refugee Olympic Team is only the second iteration of a team without a nation and their participation was hard won, requiring extensive negotiations between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Marching behind the Olympic flag at the July 23rd opening ceremony, a team of 29 athletes came to Tokyo to make a statement for refugees everywhere – you belong. 

Representing the estimated 20.7 million people who’ve been forced to flee tragedy and cross international borders in search of safety, these players signify that the Olympic Games can and should be about more than patriotism.

Athletes born in Afghanistan, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, the Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Venezuela have been training long and hard for this day. Their paths to the Olympics are convoluted, but their inspiration and volition to compete have guaranteed this team a spot in the world’s greatest competition. These 29 athletes will compete across a variety of categories such as athletics, badminton, boxing, road cycling, shooting, weightlifting, wrestling, and many others. Here’s a look at two of the team’s members:

Luna Solomon

Born in Eritrea, Solomon has accomplished a lot at the age of 27. A mother, olympic athlete, and student of Italy’s Olympic champion shooter – Niccolo Campriani – Luna has impressed audiences globally with her sharp eye.

Yusra Mardini

The youngest ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, Yusra fled Syria with her family trying to cross the Mediterranean in a ruptured boat. Swimming for safety, Yusra began her career as a swimmer there and is already competing in her second Olympic match. Yusra came in 3rd in the Women’s 100m butterfly Swimming. The now 19 year old has made a name for herself inside the pool as well as in the sphere of international diplomacy.  

The IOC selected this year’s team from a field of 55 athletes who were determined by the UNHCR to be refugees. Preparing in their new countries, these athletes received training and support from some of the world’s best thanks to the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity fund which set aside about $100 million to fund thousands of athletes. From this, $3 million was designated for scholarships to 56 refugee athletes worldwide.

Refugee Olympic Team Controversies

However, controversy has emerged over the use of this funding with some athletes reporting they have not received the $1,500 monthly stipend intended for them. 

Six athletes training at the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation Training Center have left the program due to financial concerns regarding the stipend, bonuses, and winnings that have been withheld. As Time’s reporter Vivienne Walt explains in her piece, some athletes like Dominic Lokinyomo Lobalu, Gai John Nyang, and Wiyual Puok Deng abruptly dropped out citing the training center’s environment, administrative tensions, and lack of opportunities.

Considering that the Refugee Olympic Team is still developing and with it, the process of selection, training, and administration, these lapses are unfortunate but not surprising. After the 2020 Refugee Olympic Team’s successful competition, it seems likely that this relatively new institution will become a permanent member of the Olympic family. Hopefully, its permanent status will lead to greater oversight as a result. 

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