In Sight

A Team With No Flag

At the Summer Olympics, the first Refugee Olympic Team


NAIROBI, Kenya—The first time Yiech Pur Biel boarded a plane, in 2005, it was to escape the war-torn corner of southern Sudan where he grew up. He has lived in a refugee camp in northwestern Kenya ever since. If all goes as planned, the second time he boards a plane, in just a few weeks, it will be to make history. Mr. Biel is slated to compete in the 800-meter track and field event at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro as a member of the first Refugee Olympic Team.

In the face of unprecedented global displacement as a result of war, despotism and poverty, the famously apolitical International Olympic Committee (IOC) created a team of 10 refugee-athletes who will compete not just for individual Olympic glory, but also for the dignity of the world’s 65.3 million displaced people. Their very presence in Rio is a call for peace in war-torn nations and acceptance of refugees elsewhere in the world.

“This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis,” IOC President Thomas Bach said as he officially introduced the team earlier this month. “It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.”

Mr. Biel, who has taken to calling himself a refugee ambassador, is more than happy to be the face of that message. He will lead the parade of athletes at the opening ceremony in Rio, where his team will march under the Olympic banner, since they have no flag of their own. “Most of the refugees, they are looking upon us,” he said in a recent interview after a light morning run in the rolling green hills outside the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. “They are saying, ‘You are on a team that represents us.’ Even if we will not manage to get gold, at least we can do something to show the world we can make it in life.”

Back in 2005, at the tail end of a decades long civil war that preceded South Sudan’s independence from Sudan, Mr. Biel’s home village was cut off from the rest of the country by fighting. When the family had nearly exhausted their food supplies, his mother decided to flee to nearby Ethiopia with the two younger children. Mr. Biel, who was 10 at the time, stayed in the care of neighbors. He never saw his family again.

A relief team from the United Nations eventually made it to the isolated village and, recognizing the urgency of the situation, cobbled together an evacuation plan. Mr. Biel was bundled onto an emergency flight and shuttled to the Kakuma refugee camp, across the border in Kenya.

Mr. Biel’s unlikely road to the Olympics began on World Refugee Day in June 2015, when the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, which was founded by the Kenyan marathon champion of the same name, helped organize a series of foot races in some of Kenya’s refugee camps at the request of the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

Mr. Biel, who was 20 at the time, had never run competitively before the trials that were held in Kakuma in August, but he decided to give them a shot. “I was playing football by that time,” he said. “But most of the people, they are trying the race, and I decide to try my luck.” He finished near the top of the 10-kilometer race and was one of the initial crop of about 20 runners invited for additional training.

Loroupe’s foundation, which manages the Refugee Olympic Team’s training facility outside Nairobi, ultimately submitted the names of 12 athletes to the IOC for consideration. Of those, five were selected—all of them South Sudanese who had spent most of their childhoods in the Kakuma refugee camp. The remaining five members of the team include two internationally competitive swimmers from Syria who are living in Belgium and Germany, an Ethiopian marathoner training in Luxembourg, and two refugees from Congo, currently living in Brazil, who will compete in judo.

The team captures the breadth of the global refugee crisis. Victor Nyamori, the refugee officer with Amnesty International in Nairobi, credited the IOC with highlighting not just the plight of Syrians, but other crises.

For his part, Mr. Biel is most interested in calling attention to the experiences that he and his new teammates share in common—both what they have had to sacrifice and what they still hope to achieve. “We shall meet as refugees, the 10 of us,” he said, ahead of the games. “We become one team. We are the eyes of the refugees.”

 

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