Yusra Mardini may very well exemplify the best of Olympism. After completing a life-threatening journey from Syria to Germany, the eighteen-year old swimmer is picking up the threads of an Olympic dream with help from the International Olympic Committee, which has identified her as one of 43 promising refugee athletes vying for a spot on the “Refugee Olympic Athletes” (ROA) team.
The elite swimmer showed the stuff of which she is made during a perilous nighttime crossing of the Aegean Sea. Twenty people were crammed into a small dingy that began taking on water when its motor failed. Mardini, her sister Sarah, and another individual were the only passengers who could swim. The trio jumped overboard, and for three and a half hours they pushed and kicked the dingy towards shore.
Mardini eventually made it to Berlin, and when volunteers discovered that swimming was one of her skills, they put her family in touch with a German swimming club. Now Mardini is on a different journey – that of competing in Rio.
Mardini’s story is appealing for multiple reasons. It has a fairy-tale quality with the expectation of a happily ever after ending. It is a heroic tale that demonstrates the will to survive and save others. It provides a counterpoint to the many tragic images of refugees drowned at sea, turned back at borders, or languishing in refugee camps. And, Mardini’s journey speaks to the universality of struggle as part of the human experience.
In a metaphorical sense, we are all refugees. We live in exile and are spiritually separated from a state of “wholeness”. Like refugees longing for home, we seek to transcend the brokenness in our self and in our world. We look to others to help us when all appears lost. We cling to the side of the dingy when the motor fails and the night is dark. We abide with hope.
The IOC understands the importance of hope, and with the creation of ROA, it wants to send a message of hope to refugees. It also wants to draw the world’s attention to the magnitude of the global refugee crisis.
In many ways – opening and closing ceremonies, podium presentations, medal standings, team uniforms – the Olympics are about nationhood and national pride. But the athletes who will comprise ROA are stateless; they no longer have a country to support them or for whom they can compete. They exist in a kind of civic limbo, dependent on the generosity of a global community that is not always welcoming, and on nations that are increasingly concerned with protecting borders. This team of refugee athletes will be the face of 60 million displaced persons around the globe. With ROA, the IOC has given us a metaphor for tearing down walls, building bridges, opening our hearts, and expanding our definition of “neighbour”.
Olympism puts sport at the service of society for the purposes of uniting people, promoting peace, and bridging conflict. With ROA, and through the support and training that it is providing for 43 refugee athletes, including the inspiring Yusra Mardini, the IOC is putting its money where its mouth is.