The Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) has returned to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, following their success in Rio 2016. Since its initial debut, the team has almost tripled in size, with 29 athletes competing in 12 Olympic disciplines.
Sport has the compelling power to promote peace, tolerance and understanding. In the past decade, the number of displaced people worldwide has more than doubled. The inclusion of the ROT sends a powerful message to the millions of refugees worldwide and demonstrates the incredible prowess of those who have already endured such hardships.
Despite having, “no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played,” International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, Dr. Thomas Bach has stressed the inclusivity of the Games where “these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic flag and with the Olympic anthem.”
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi expressed his support for the team over social media, stating that “on the eve of the XXXII Olympiad, I salute and celebrate you all as you prepare to represent the refugees and displaced people from all over the world – not just one nation; to represent the true essence of the Olympic Spirit.”
The IOC has cooperated with the UNHCR since 1994, making great efforts in helping refugees with their physical and mental well-being through sport. The ROTs successful involvement in the Rio Games sent an important message of hope, inclusion and peace for refugees worldwide and brought global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis. The Tokyo 2020 games only serve to bolster this message on the world sporting stage.
Kimia Alizadeh became the first Iranian woman to win a medal for her country after claiming bronze in taekwondo in Rio 2016. In 2020 she announced her defection from Iran to Germany and now represents the ROT at the Tokyo 2020 games. Alizadeh came within striking distance of earning the ROT’s first medal. Beating two-time gold medallist Jade Jones, Alizadeh continued onto the semi-finals but narrowly missed out the chance for a medal following a harrowing match against Tukey’s Hatice Kubra Ilgun.
Sport promotes peace through many efforts by building relationships, connecting individuals to communities, providing platforms and creating space for dialogue. Approximately 82 million people have been forced to flee their homes worldwide. In 2015, the IOC created the Refugee Athlete Support Programme to identify and support displaced athletes to prepare for and compete in high-level competitions. The promotion of peace through sport is embodied in the establishment of the ROT as Olympians from differing nationalities compete together under the IOC’s banner and give platforms for disadvantaged individuals to become valued competitors at the world’s foremost international sporting event.
This unique opportunity demonstrates the commitment of large international organisations like the IOC to stand with refugees and support them through sport. The goal of the Olympic Movement is to promote a peaceful, better world through non-discriminate sporting events with the Olympic Spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. Participation in the Games is heralded as a path for many displaced persons to build their pride and dignity, continue their sporting careers, and build their futures. With the reappearance of the team at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the ROT will continue to inspire future generations and bring greater attention to the plights of refugees.
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