The Olympic Games always amaze me. I admire the perseverance of elite athletes who race under different flags. Regardless of their countries, I support all the challengers. Those athletes remind me of mythological Greek gods.
They are Olympic heroes.
In 2016, there will be 10 real heroes at the Olympic Games starting in August. They are refugees. They ran away from devastating civil wars, poverty and misery but they never gave up. They kept fighting as elite athletes in miserable conditions. Eventually they gained tickets to the Summer Games.
In March, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided — for the first time in its history — to create the Refugee Team, made up of migrants from different nations for the 2016 Games.
Early this week, the committee announced the 10-member team: five from South Sudan, two from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, two from Syria and one from Ethiopia. They will compete for the Refugee Team and act as a symbol of refugees throughout the world.
Each person has an impressive story, but the most astonishing is Yusra Mardini’s fearful adventure.
At 18, she is the youngest member of the team. The Syrian swimmer will compete in the 100-meter freestyle race.
Mardini and her sister were among the best swimmers in Syria before civil war broke out. Their future shattered alongside their country’s when the uprising turned violent.
During the war, the siblings escaped to Lebanon and then hit the road for Turkey. When they arrived there last August, they paid smugglers to try to reach Lesbos Island, part of Greece, in the Aegean Sea.
Smugglers put them on a plastic boat with the 20 other “passengers,” and then started the motor and left them. Thirty minutes later the motor stopped, and the boat threatened to capsize. Everyone was panicked.
Mardini jumped into the sea and started to push the boat until they reached the Greek shore with the help of another refugee woman.
The actions of the young swimmer saved her life and the lives of other refugees.
Eventually, Mardini reached Germany with her dreams of making the Olympics. German officials allowed her to use an Olympic-sized pool in Berlin for training, with the help of a new coach.
In a news conference, Mardini said, “I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea because I am a swimmer.”
But she did not drown.
Less than a year later, after her inspiring story of survival, she has made the Refugee Team.
She and the nine other refugees have no home, no flag, no national anthem — but will have the Olympic flag and the Olympic anthem.
They have confidence in their aims; they have courage. They have already made history.
That is the team I will support this summer.
Gokce Aytulu is an Alfred Friendly fellow from Turkey. The Star will be his host until September. Twitter: @GokceAytulu