The Refugee Olympic team, a symbol of hope

History was made at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 with the participation of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team, raising awareness of the magnitude of the global refugee crisis. IOC photographer David Burnett joined the 10 athletes on their remarkable journey in Rio.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a refugee as “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence”. In today’s world, upheaval on nearly every continent has forced millions to leave their homes. In the 1970s and ’80s, as part of my work as a photojournalist, I visited a number of refugee encampments across Asia and Africa, hoping that, in some small way, my photographs might tell their stories.

Leaving one’s home is probably the single most difficult decision one can make. Very few refugee camps provide anything more than basic lodging and subsistence.

It is a true test for the refugees on many levels. Education for children is almost always a casualty of the situation of too few resources for too many people. Yet, I have found there is almost always a resilience among refugees that belies their circumstances, and often those in the toughest situations reveal a fortitude that far surpasses what one might expect.

And so, this summer, with the International Olympic Committee offering support for the Refugee Olympic Team, we saw 10 individuals, each from a backdrop of strife and difficulty, who had been given the chance to train, live, and compete as Olympic athletes. That none of them won a medal was but a minor footnote to what was a committed and spirited group. Watching the long-distance runners take to the track, or the swimmers to the pool, one couldn’t help but be struck by the adherence to the hard work necessary for any athlete to succeed.

The first day at the training pool, I spent a couple of hours with Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis, both swimmers from Syria. Would they win medals or set new records? Perhaps not, but nothing I saw in Rio, in any venue, could compete with the sheer dedication to work – hours going full-bore in the pool – which they displayed. The runners too came with a single-mindedness which was typical of what one would expect of an Olympian. Sometimes it’s the game itself, and devotion to the game, be it running, judo, or swimming, which is the test. Days, months, even years of preparation are the rule, not the exception. The concept of Olympism embraces the fusion of mind, will, and body, and these refugee athletes excelled in every way, above all, in an age of adversity, with their own humanity. 

back to top