Amid a world in apparent chaos, the Rio Olympics will shine a poignant reflection of the disturbing turbulence.
And, no, not merely in the sense that this gorgeous-but-ailing city is challenged to meet untenable demands to properly host this event — particularly in terms of such fundamentals as transportation and security.
Instead, the mirror on the globe will be delivered in the at-once inspiring and piercing form of the 10-member Refugee Olympic Team, the first of its kind.
In opening ceremonies on Friday night, the improbable hodge-podge of athletes from Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Syria will march with the Olympic flag immediately before host Brazil — a place of honor and prominence befitting the role.
“We don’t know the same language,” Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer, said alongside teammates listening to the translation of her words at a mesmerizing news conference on Tuesday. “We are not from the same countries.
“But the Olympic flag united all of us together.”
She thinks about the remarkable alliance they have forged, these survivors of war and persecution and starvation and sheer savagery and being orphaned or otherwise abandoned and taken in by other countries.
But like the rest, she thinks mostly of what she represents to an estimated 65 million refugees around the world — many of whom are doubly victimized and trapped because of those who perceive them primarily as threats.
“I want everyone to think that refugees are normal humans who had homelands and who lost it,” she said. “Not because they wanted to and not because they wanted to be refugees or to run away or to have drama in their lives.
“No, They had to leave their countries, and everyone is trying to get a new life, to get a better life.”
So she asks that you try to think of it as if these sorts of monstrous things could happen to you.
Not because she would wish that upon anyone but because “you have to think like that so you can feel the people.”
This is a time it might be easy to be cynical about the Olympics, blinded by money, bloated to near-bursting, often curiously guided by the International Olympic Committee and beset with such diminishments as the Russian cheating scheme.
But there is something pure and sweet and uplifting about this newly engaged endeavor of the IOC, something to send a surge through a dimming light.
Read the profiles of each, as chronicled by The Associated Press, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to shake your head in dismay or even shed a tear at their plights.
Consider Rose Lokonyen, 7 years old and looking for a place to hide during the Sudanese civil war when she instead found the dead bodies of her grandparents and was sent to a refugee camp.
Rather matter-of-factly on Tuesday, she said the camp was “challenging because sometimes maybe you can be attacked by the host communities. They can rape women.”
Popole Misenga was 9 when he was separated from his family during fighting in Congo and spent eight days in a forest before being rescued.
Even after finding solace and identity in judo, the horrors didn’t stop.
When he lost, he often was locked in a cage for days — as was countrywoman and fellow judo athlete Yolande Mabika.
Then there are Syrians swimmers Mardini and Rami Anis, each of whom made separate perilous trips across the Aegean Sea to get to Europe. Mardini had to swim for her life when her boat sank.
Mardini left when she felt “there was no point anymore” in trying to triumph over what she called “the normal bombing and shooting and all that stuff.”
Asked about what he had lost in the strife in Syria, Anis noted that friends had died but then made a plea.
“I am very sad,” he said. “And I prefer that your questions be toward the future: championships, hopes and not the dark past.”
Mardini, too, thinks of better times ahead.
Asked Tuesday by Israel Sports Channel about her message to Damascus, she said, “I’m going to go back one day. I miss everything there, and I want them to not give up. …
“I want everyone to think of their dream, because a lot of people there forgot their dreams.”
Her own have been sustained through swimming, whether literally in the sea or more figuratively as something “that was there when everybody let me down” and she could put “all my problems behind my back.”
Now, she is buoyed by what she calls an “amazing” spirit of this unique team that has all come together for the first time in Rio.
“They can lift you up,” she said.
And while none of them figures to earn a medal, that’s what she hopes they can all do for others suffering and displaced.
“A lot of people have hopes in us,” she said, “and we can’t let them down.”