Guest Commentary

The Refugee Team at Rio Olympics gave the world a message of hope

The Refugee Team arrived during the opening ceremony on Aug. 5 for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The Refugee Team arrived during the opening ceremony on Aug. 5 for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Associated Press

Did you see British cyclist Bradley Wiggins during his team’s medal ceremony at the Rio Olympics?

Wiggins, a five-time gold medal winner, was standing very seriously during his country’s national anthem and almost seemed ready to cry. But suddenly he stuck out his tongue and a big smile crossed his face.

That was funny. His teammates laughed and the crowd cheered.

The Olympic Games create different emotions: Pride, triumph, misery, fun and sometimes hope.

We have been lucky to watch swimmer Michael Phelps, the most successful human being of all time at the Olympics. His story is inspiring.

But there is another inspiring story in Rio: The Refugee Team.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) created the unique team, made up of migrants from different nations, for the 2016 Games.

It has 10 members: five from South Sudan, two from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, two from Syria and one from Ethiopia.

They all 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. And they did well.

Rami Anis, 25, swam his personal best in the men’s 100-meter freestyle. The Syrian refugee did not make the final but that is not important.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to compete in the Olympics,” he said. “I don’t want to wake up from this dream.”

“Dream” would be the most proper word to describe his presence in Rio. Just one year ago he fled his devastated country for Belgium and somehow continued his training there.

The youngest member of the team, Yusra Mardini, is also from war-torn Syria.

Mardini, 18, was among the best swimmers in her country before a civil war broke out. She escaped to Lebanon and then hit the road for Turkey with her sister.

They paid smugglers in Turkey to try to reach Lesbos Island, part of Greece, in the Aegean Sea.

The smugglers put them on a plastic boat with the 20 other refugees and left them. Thirty minutes later the motor stopped, and the boat threatened to capsize. Everyone panicked.

Mardini jumped into the sea and started to push the boat with the help of another female refugee until the boat reached the Greek shore. Mardini helped save the lives of the refugees.

In Germany, her final destination, officials allowed Mardini to use an Olympic-sized pool in Berlin for training, with the help of a new coach. She then qualified for the Olympics.

In Rio she won her 100-meter butterfly heat but could not reach the finals. It looks like there will be better memories in future Olympics for her.

After her performance, Mardini said, “I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them, not because they wanted to run away and be refugees.”

The refugee athletes from South Sudan — Yiech Pur Biel, James Chiengjiek, Rose Nathike, Angelina Nadia Lohalith and Paulo Amotun Lokoro — failed in the qualifications but their Olympic dreams came true.

Judoists Yolende Mabika of the Congo was knocked out in the first round and Popole Misenga, also of the Congo, lost his second-round contest.

But they triumphed by showing their resistance against all odds. They never gave up and sent the message of hope to the world.

On Sunday we are going to watch the Refugee Team for the last time in Rio. Ethiopian Yonas Kinde will compete in the men’s marathon.

His score is not important. He is already a winner, too.

Gokce Aytulu is an Alfred Friendly fellow from Turkey. The Star will be his host until September. Twitter:@GokceAytulu

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