How sport can change or save a life

While sport for many is about physical achievement and the ability to inspire others, it also holds the power to change – or even save – a life, in more ways than you can imagine. 

By Nick McCarvel
Picture by 2016 Getty Images

Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Popole Misenga was a top junior judoka before he and a teammate fled their team hotel at an international competition in 2013.

A refugee who would eventually be named to the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team for Rio 2016, Misenga’s story is an example of how sport can change or save a life – no matter who you are.

There were nine more members of that Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016 in addition to Misenga, and a second refugee team is set to compete at the coming Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 in 2021.

Sport has the power to move us, help us learn, and discover more about ourselves and each other, but it can also vastly change or save a life, as exhibited by those refugee stories – as well as countless others around the world.

Life-saving sport stories

“My life has, indeed, changed,” said Syrian swimmer Rami Anis, another member of the 2016 Refugee Olympic Team. “The Olympics strengthened my resolve.”

Members of the 2016 team have become active in their own lives in trying to share their passion for sport – through visits to local sporting clubs, schools – and even refugee camps.

“I tell my story because I want people to understand that sport saved my life,” swimmer Yusra Mardini told Olympics.com in an interview in January 2021.

“Sport was our way out,” said the 22-year-old in an Instagram Live chat. “It was kind of what gave us hope to build our new lives.”

'Judo saved me'

Perhaps the most clear example of how powerful sport can be for any one given person is to see the words of Misenga, the judoka:

"I was so happy when I found out I was selected for the Refugee Olympic Team," he told the International Judo Federation in 2019. "It meant a lot for me, to be able to represent all the refugees in the world on the international sports platform. It gives me strength on the tatami representing the millions of persons who had to leave their home and country."

"Judo has saved me." - Popole Misenga

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