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Rose Lokonyen Nathike carries the flag of Refugee Olympic Team during the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Aug. 5, 2016.
David J. Phillip/AP
Citizenship

The Refugee Olympic Team Will Return for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo


Why Global Citizens Should Care
The world is facing the largest refugee crisis in recorded history, and the Olympics provide an opportunity to bring this crisis to the world’s attention. You can join us in taking action on this issue here.

If you feel an allegiance to multiple countries or simply don’t know who to root for when the Summer Olympics returns in 2020, a team that transcends borders and represents a humanitarian cause will be competing once again.

The International Olympic Committee announced that a team of refugees will be allowed to compete for the second time in Olympic history.

After first appearing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the IOC said that similar geopolitical realities around the world call for the team’s return.

Take Action: Step Up to Support Migrants and Refugees!

“In an ideal world, we would not need to have a refugee team at the Olympic Games,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in the press release. “But, unfortunately, the reasons why we first created a Refugee Olympic Team before the Olympic Games Rio 2016 continue to persist. We will do our utmost to welcome refugee athletes and give them a home and a flag in the Olympic Village in Tokyo with all the Olympic athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees. This is the continuation of an exciting, human and Olympic journey, and a reminder to refugees that they are not forgotten.”  

The IOC has identified around 50 prospective athletes and will be making final considerations for the team leading up to the games. In 2016, the refugee team was cobbled together quickly due to time constraints, and it consisted of 10 athletes that competed in categories such as running, swimming, and judo.

Yusra Mardini is a Syrian refugee who competed in swimming events in Rio, while James Nyang Chiengjiek fled South Sudan for Kenya and later competed in the 400-meter sprint.

AP_835881804846_yusra-mardini.jpgImage: AP Photo/Michael Sohn, File

Read More: After nearly drowning in Lesbos, Yusra Mardini swims for Olympic Refugee Athletes team

This year the team could be much bigger due to the longer runway for preparations, according to Bach.

"Last time [for Rio] we were under very high time pressure,” Bach told Reuters. “Now, we have two years. We have already taken precaution ... and we have a pool of athletes in place. Already now we're supporting 51 or 52 refugee athletes who we have identified.”

"This pool can still grow in the runup to Tokyo 2020. It is too early to say how many will finally make it,” he added.

There are currently 68.5 million displaced people in the world, the highest number in recorded history. The sprawling global crisis has various epicenters, especially in the Middle East and parts of Africa. Syria is currently the largest source of refugees in the world, followed by Afghanistan and South Sudan. In 2017, the largest new source of refugees came from Myanmar, following the Rohingya genocide.  

Read More: This Disabled Syrian Athlete Just Carried the Olympic Torch Through a Refugee Camp

Finding athletes to compete for the Olympic team is not difficult, in theory — if a single country comprised all displaced persons, it would be the 21st largest by population, with more people than the United Kingdom.

And sport is something that connects people regardless of location or situation. In fact, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, supports flourishing sports communities in refugee camps, especially because sports can function as a kind of therapy for people experiencing trauma.

But refugees often live in environments where records and resources are scarce, so tracking down promising athletes can be challenging. In fact, the UN released a report earlier this week detailing how relief programs for refugees and migrants are severely underfunded.

The IOC is hoping that the refugee team will once again bring the plight of refugees to the world stage and potentially spur greater humanitarian efforts so that the team no is no longer necessary in the future.

"Through sport we want to make a contribution to keep the world aware of this problem and this challenge and that it does not disappear from the conscience of the world, and send another signal of hope to these refugees,” Bach told Reuters.