Inspiration and Innovation: the Rio 2016 Refugee Olympic Team

Guest contribution by Justin Margolis, B.A, M.Sc.
9 August, 2016

In 2014, I published an article on Asylum-Seeking Olympians, accredited Members of the Olympic Family who use the Games as a way to flee their country and seek asylum in a new land, at times facilitated by their Olympic Accreditation Cards. With the arrival of the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympic Games, refugees are again making Olympic headlines, with the creation of the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. Last Friday, ten refugees marched into the Olympic Stadium waving the Olympic flag, at the end of the Parade of Nations and just before the home country, Brazil.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) should be congratulated for recognizing the plight of these refugees and allowing them to compete with dignity. Although a team of refugees competing under the banner of the IOC is not the situation I researched, I wish to share my thoughts and analysis. In particular, four qualities make these athletes distinct from past independent athletes (IOA/IOPs) who also competed under the Olympic flag.

It is important to highlight that “countries” do not enter the Olympics, rather “National Olympic Committees” (NOC). This is how American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands compete separately from the United States, although their athletes are U.S. citizens. Additionally, territories like Hong Kong, Palestine, and Taiwan (Chinese Taipei) each have NOCs. There are currently 193 United Nations Member States, but 207 NOCs will compete in Rio.

Independent Olympians vs. Refugee Olympic Team

The IOC has a recent tradition of allowing athletes to compete as independents: Barcelona 1992 (58 Independent Olympic Participants), Sydney 2000 (4 Individual Olympic Athletes), London 2012 (4 Independent Olympic Athletes), Sochi 2014 (1 Independent Olympic Participant), and currently at Rio 2016 (9 Independent Olympic Athletes). At Rio the independent athletes are Kuwaiti, as their NOC is currently suspended. Although the IOAs and the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) both compete under the Olympic flag, their reasons for existence are fundamentally different: IOA/IOPs are included during political transition and in the event of NOC suspension.

The end of the Cold War resulted in two different delegations competing under the Olympic flag in 1992. At the time of the Barcelona Summer Games, UN sanctions banned the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) from competition, and the Republic of Macedonia had not yet formed a NOC. The IOC permitted 52 Yugoslav and 6 Macedonian athletes to compete as IOPs; three won medals. Likewise, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and in the absence of new NOCs, athletes from most CIS states formed a “Unified Olympic Team,” competing under the Olympic flag at both the Albertville Winter and Barcelona Summer Games.

More recently, at the time of the 2012 London Games, South Sudan had just gained independence but had not yet established a NOC; its athlete competed independently. Also at London, following the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles and its NOC, three athletes from Curaçao decided to compete as independents, despite being eligible to compete for Aruba or for the Netherlands as several of their teammates ultimately did.

Furthermore, athletes have competed as independents when issues arose with their NOC. At Sochi 2014, the Indian Olympic Association was suspended due to electoral fraud. The three Indian athletes entered the Games under the Olympic flag and one competed as an IOP. After holding new elections, India’s NOC was reinstated halfway through the Games and the remaining two athletes competed as Indians. Kuwaiti athletes were intended to compete as IOAs at London 2012, but their

NOC’s suspension due to political interference was lifted shortly before the Games. Kuwait’s NOC is again suspended, and Kuwaiti athletes are currently competing in Rio as independents.

The 2016 Russian doping scandal has led to the disqualification of many athletes, notably in Athletics. The IOC rejected a proposal to allow certain “clean” Russian athletes compete as “neutral” athletes under the Olympic flag. Had the IOC accepted, the neutral Russians would have joined the Kuwaitis as IOAs.

The IOC Creates and the IOC Decides

When the IOC previously decided to recognize IOA/IOPs, its decision applied equally to all qualified athletes from the NOC or predecessor state in question. For example, had more than four athletes from East Timor qualified for the 2000 Sydney Games during their country’s democratic transition, they would have joined their teammates as IOAs.

For Rio 2016, the IOC identified 43 potential refugee athletes from undisclosed countries to form a refugee team. After consulting with NOCs, the International Federations (sporting bodies such as FIFA), and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the IOC selected ten refugee athletes from four countries: D.R. Congo (2), Ethiopia (1), South Sudan (5) and Syria (2).

The athletes currently reside in Belgium (1), Brazil (2), Germany (1), Kenya (5), and Luxembourg (1); these countries became the refugee’s Host NOC. It is truly unique that the IOC‘s Executive Board, not a defunct NOC, decided the team’s composition.

Is That My Old Neighbour?

In the past, athletes were able to compete as independents when their home country was unable to participate in the Games. But at Rio 2016, all four countries of origin of the refugee athletes have active NOCs competing in the Games. In theory, the athletes could participate with the NOC of their country of origin and citizenship. In practice this of course is not possible. The sheer reason these athletes are refugees is due their well-founded fear of persecution in their home country, and their inability and/or unwillingness to return to it. This will be the first time that independent athletes compete under the Olympic flag, while their compatriots are still competing under their former national flag.

Avoiding an Olympic Groundhog Day

Olympic Rule 41 states that athletes must hold the nationality of their NOC to participate. In the case of migration, athletes who have already competed for one NOC must wait at least three years before competing for their new NOC. This has happened many times, especially during the Cold War when Eastern Bloc Olympians sought asylum in the West and then competed for their new country upon acquiring its citizenship.

Refugees initially begin as permanent residents of their new countries, but a waiting period of varying length applies before acquiring citizenship. Even in generous countries like Canada, this period is longer than an Olympiad. This means that most if not all ten refugee athletes competing in Rio will not be citizens of their new countries before the 2020 Tokyo Games. It is not impossible that in 2020 they could again be renounced to competing as refugee athletes. This situation would be completely out of the IOC’s control, as it is up to each country to grant citizenship.

The ten refugees competing at Rio are extremely fortunate and will serve as an inspiration to the planet. Also, the financial support provided by the Olympic Solidarity Commission is essential, since Host NOCs have little incentive to spend, as any medals will be awarded to the ROT, not the NOC.

But with more than 20,000,000 refugees worldwide, we all must work harder to end conflicts, so that such accommodations are no longer necessary.

Share this: