04.08.2016 - UNESCOPRESS

For refugee Olympians, it’s more than just a game

“Of the 20 people crammed into the boat from Turkey to Lesbos, I was one of just four who knew how to swim,” said Yusra Mardini, Syrian swimmer and one of the youngest members of the Refugee Olympic team set to compete over the next few weeks in Rio.

“When the boat broke down 30 minutes into the journey, my sister and I jumped out and started pushing it to shore. To think, there I was, a swimmer, and I was going to end up dying in the water.”

But Yusra didn’t die and thanks to her athletic abilities was instead able to push the boat for over 3 hours, reaching the shores of Greece and saving the lives of all 20 people on board.

Yusra and her sister then travelled through Europe to Germany, where they settled in Berlin in September 2015. There, she returned to her passion, swimming, and soon caught the attention of German swim team, Wasserfreunde Spandau 04.

In March 2016, the International Olympic Committee announced the creation of the first ever refugee Olympic team for the 2016 games, as part of an effort to show solidarity with the world’s refugees and to support athletes that have fled their homeland and have no national team to belong to.

Ten young althletes were selected for the team in total, including five runners from South Sudan; a marathoner from Ethiopia; two judokas from the DRC; and two swimmers from Syria, Rami Anis and Yusra Mardini.

All of the young athletes representing the Refugee team in Rio have overcome tremendous adversity including famine, war and the loss of friends and family members, and many of them, like Yusra, risked their lives for a chance to excel elsewhere.

For the President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, the inclusion of the refugees in the 2016 Olympics will send an important message to the world. “These refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit,” he said.

This is certainly a sentiment echoed in UNESCO’s work promoting the importance of every child’s right to access sport and the universal framework of sport values such as equality, respect, fairness and inclusion.

The human spirit described by Bach is also very evident in our #YouthOfUNESCO protagonist, Yusra Mardini, and will certainly take her far. “When you’re an athlete, it doesn’t matter whether you’re from Syria, London or Germany. In the water, there is no difference between refugees and non-refugees. It’s just you, your lane, your swimming cap and the competition.”

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