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Behind the Numbers: Meet the 10 Olympic Refugees

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Matteo Zambon

SocietyBehind the Numbers

A new team of athletes made their debut at the opening ceremony of Rio 2016 Olympic Games: the Olympic Refugee Team. Baron de Coubertin would have certainly approved.

“The most important thing is not winning but taking part.” This famous quote by Baron de Coubertin became the motto and the guiding philosophy for the modern Olympic Games. At a time when the world is being hit by a lingering migrant crisis, someone at the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne must have thought it appropriate to back those words up with concrete actions. So they decided to set up a refugee team.

They didn’t just allow stateless athletes or athletes from countries without a National Olympic Committee to compete under the Olympic flag, as it had already happened before. No, this time they set up an actual team specifically for Olympic Refugee Athletes (that’s its official name), who will compete under this flag rather than those of the countries they fled. Ten athletes have been selected and even the ever-impartial UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon is rooting for them.

Some of these people have incredible stories. Yusra Mardini, an 18-year-old Syrian swimmer, saved several lives - her own included - by jumping off the dinghy on which she was crossing the stormy Aegean Sea and pushing the boat for miles to reach safety. After landing on the Greek coast, she crossed Europe on foot and reached Germany.

Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, who will be running in the women's 1500m, fled South Sudan and now hopes to get back in touch with her parents who have stayed in the country but wanted her to be away from the horrors of war. Who knows if they have heard of their daughter taking part in the Olympics and if they will be able to follow the races some way?

In short, there’s a new team you can root for during these Olympic Games. But there’s a bittersweet aspect to this story: during the Olympics in Ancient Greece a truce was called and all wars were suspended. The existence of a Refugee Olympic Team in 2016 is a reminder that this habit has sadly died out.


This article is part of our Behind the Numbers series, illustrating newsworthy stats with artistic design and a brief analysis.

Translated from Numeri che parlano da soli: i 10 atleti rifugiati che parteciperanno ai Giochi Olimpici