Olympic refugee team to compete in Games for a second time

Athletes from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Iran and elsewhere will contest more than 12 sports in Tokyo

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Twenty-nine refugees will be competing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics under the Olympic flag, marking the second time in history such a team has attended the Games.

It consists of players from 11 countries, including Afghanistan and Syria, and is scheduled to compete in 24 events in 12 sports over the three weeks of the Games.

The first group of athletes left Qatar for Japan on July 19 after the team gathered in Doha for training and Covid-19 testing.

Their departure was delayed due to one positive result from an official working with the team, who will remain in Qatar.

Three members of the Olympic refugee team, Ahmad Alikaj (L), Abdullah Sediqi (C) and coach Alireza Nassrazadany (R) arrive at the Narita international airport in Narita, Chiba prefecture on July 14, 2021.  (Photo by Kazuhiro NOGI  /  AFP)

I feel very excited. Finally, we are going to Tokyo,” said badminton player Aram Mahmoud, originally from Syria, while on his way to the airport on Sunday.

“You could think that it is like going to any tournament. But it is not. Despite the situation, I feel ready mentally and physically and want to give my best.”

The team will be taking part in the opening ceremony on Friday, marching under the Olympic flag and following Greece in the parade.

Members will compete in swimming, boxing, cycling, judo, karate and taekwondo, among others.

“They are an exceptional group of people who inspire the world,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said in June.

“UNHCR is incredibly proud to support them as they compete at the Tokyo Olympic Games.”

Syrian swimmer Alaa Maso of the refugee Olympics team trains at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. AP

Most athletes are originally from Syria, a country devastated by more than 10 years of conflict, which has displaced about 13.5 million people.

Syria was the world's top source for refugees in 2020, with about 6.8 million people having fled the country.

In addition to the nine members from Syria, there are five from Iran, four from South Sudan and three from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan and South Sudan are among the top five countries of origin for refugees.

The other members are from Eritrea, Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Venezuela, places where extreme poverty, conflict and persecution have forced millions to flee.

“Surviving war, persecution and the anxiety of exile already makes them extraordinary people, but the fact that they now also excel as athletes on the world stage fills me with immense pride," Mr Grandi said.

"It shows what is possible when refugees are given the opportunity to make the most of their potential."

Afghan refugee road cyclist Masomah Ali Zada prepares for a training session at the World Cycling Centre in Tokyo. AFP

The world reached a record number of refugees in 2020, even as travel restrictions swept the globe during the coronavirus pandemic.

The UN counted 20.7 million refugees among more than 82 million people who have been displaced.

The world is experiencing the highest number of refugees since the Second World War.

This is the second time there has been a refugee team at the Olympics, with the first competing in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Games. No team was formed for the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games.

Six members from the first team in Rio are returning as members of this year's contingent.

This year, a Refugee paralympics team of six members will take part in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, the second time such a team has attended the Games.

The athletes, from Syria, Iran, Burundi and Afghanistan, will lead the opening ceremony on August 24, also marching under the Olympic flag.

The refugees are able to compete and train thanks to scholarships from the International Olympic Committee through their Olympic Solidarity initiative.

“You are an integral part of our Olympic community and we welcome you with open arms,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told the athletes in June.

Syrian refugee Ibrahim Al Hussein, an amputee swimmer who lost his leg during the war in Syria, trains in Athens, Greece. AP
Updated: April 27, 2022, 11:28 AM