3 March 2016

Athletes without Nations: A Return to an Olympic Ideal

Daniel Gallan

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro is less than 150 days away. Thousands of athletes from an expected 206 countries will be competing on the biggest stage in world sport. All will be representing their nation and people - all except one team made up entirely of refugees and displaced people. Team Refugee Olympic Athletes will not represent any government but rather the 60 million people around the world who do not have a country to call home. Extraordinary as this is, this team is the embodiment of the original Olympic ideal.

A man walks past the 5 Olympic Rings. These rings, representing the 5 continents of the world, will be the symbol that Team Refugee Olympic Athletes will walk behind during the Games in Rio later this year.  Image supplied by Action Images

A man walks past the 5 Olympic Rings. These rings, representing the 5 continents of the world, will be the symbol that Team Refugee Olympic Athletes will walk behind during the Games in Rio later this year. Image supplied by Action Images

For the first time in history, a team made up entirely of refugees will compete in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro later this year.

Last week, the Executive Board (EB) of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved the creation of the team which will be called Team Refugee Olympic Athletes (Team ROA).

On August 5, as many as 10 athletes out of a possible 43 hopefuls will walk out as the penultimate team at the Opening Ceremony ahead of the hosts Brazil. But they will not be waving the flags of the countries they have fled. Instead they will parade under the 5 rings of the Olympic Games. Should any of them win a gold medal, the anthem they hear will be the Olympic Hymn. All their needs during the Games, such as coaching, technical support and the use of a full time chef, will be provided by the IOC.

“By welcoming the team of Refugee Olympic Athletes to the Olympic Games in Rio 2016, we want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world,” said IOC President Thomas Bach on the official website of the Olympic Movement. “We have all been touched by the magnitude of this refugee crisis.”

It is impossible to say for certain exactly how many people are currently displaced from their homes or living as refuges around the world, but estimates put that figure over 60 million, equivalent to the population of Italy. That is roughly 1 in every 120 people worldwide. There are more people who have fled war and oppression than currently live in Spain, South Africa or Kenya.

This story is simultaneously heart-warming and tragic. While the formation of this team is the result of countless atrocities, it shows that even in the midst of one of the greatest humanitarian crises of all time, sport has the power to unite and give hope.  

In creating this team, the IOC has hearkened back to an ideal that formed part of the foundation of the Modern Olympic Games. Inadvertently, and perhaps somewhat ironically, Pierre de Coubertin’s idealistic vision for world sport’s showpiece will be realised.

Born to a famous Parisian Baron and artist, the man largely credited as the father of the Modern Olympics grew up in a time of great political and social instability in France during the late 1800s.

His nation’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and subsequent establishment of the French Third Republic left an indelible mark on the young de Coubertin. When he later pursued a career in education, with a particular focus on physical education, his philosophies were influenced by notions such as nationalism, colonialism and conflict.

He believed that Germany’s superior athletic prowess, groomed on school fields and parks, gave them an advantage over his French compatriots in the war. He theorised that had those French soldiers played more sport growing up, the result may have been different.  

At the time, England possessed the largest and wealthiest empire in the world and was also the leading exponent of athletic development and sporting rivalry. De Coubertin was a great admirer of Thomas Arnold, the inspirational Headmaster of Rugby School, and journeyed to England to learn as much as he could about physical education and the benefits it provided. He even spent a night in the school chapel in an attempt to channel that competitive spirit. 

If Arnold’s influence planted the seeds of the Games in de Coubertin’s mind, it was Dr William Brookes who helped the idea grow. A surgeon by trade, Brookes encouraged physical activity as a means of establishing good health. Through conversations with the Doctor, de Coubertin came to admire Britain’s relationship with sport and drew a connection to British greatness.

Together, Brookes and de Coubertin, along with the Greek philanthropist cousins, Evangelos and Konstantinos Zappas, sought to revive the ancient competition as a way of building international relations. In 1896, the first Summer Olympics was held in Athens, the spiritual birthplace of the Games.

De Coubertin was clear that the main point of the Games was not to secure victory, but in the act of competing itself. He said, “The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

He also believed that the Games should be contested between amateur athletes representing themselves and the spirit of completion rather than their nation. He wanted to create an event that would slake man’s lust for competition while stripping him of his patriotism. In doing so, he hoped, sport would replace war.

This feeling of goodwill towards one’s fellow competitor and the pursuit of a game well played are still virtues that the IOC advocates. Their motto Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) was and still is a challenge to oneself rather than to an opponent.

But this could not last. Sport challenges individuals to improve on their last performance but competition would not exist without a winner and loser.

At the 1908 Games held in London, athletes paraded for the first time behind their nation’s flag. This undermined de Coubertin’s ideal that the Games weren’t going to be about nations. Whether the organisers of the Games intended it or not, the introduction of flags was quickly followed by feelings of nationalism and international rivalry. Athletes now represented their nations rather than themselves. Their success or failure enhanced or undermined their country’s reputation.

The 1908 Games were dominated by the rivalry between the USA and the UK which came to a head in the 400m final where the US winner was accused of interfering with a British runner. After much arguing, the race was re-run, but without an American taking part. Wyndham Halswelle, the British runner, won the race by running around the track by himself in the only walkover in Olympic Games history. This event prompted the establishment of neutral referees and judges at future Games.

The fans loved the tension that patriotic rivalry offered. Apart from war, nothing else serves us with a struggle between nations like sport. The Olympic Games have always represented a chance to get one over a rival.

Whether it’s Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the USA or China, global powerhouses view the Games as a platform to flex their political muscle. Smaller nations revel in the glory that an athlete provides whenever he or she manages to defy the odds and win a medal. Nationalism and sport are inseparable entities and the individuals that will march behind their nation’s flag later this year are representatives of the politics, social conditions, international relations and economies of those nations. Like it or not, de Coubertin’s dream did not materialise. The Olympic Games is a contest of nations with athletes acting as ambassadors. 

That is why Team ROA’s story is so invigorating. These athletes are still representing a collection of people, but not the politics or nationalistic principles of any particular country. As Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee who will be swimming butterfly at the Games told the Washington Post, “I cannot fight for my country. I will fight for the Olympics.” This sentiment is echoed by Yolande Mabika, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who told the Guardian, “I will fight for all refugees in the world, to defend all refugees in the world.”

Trolls on social media and various comment sections have aired their negativity towards the formation of this team. Some have made tasteless jokes concerning the events these athletes should be competing in such as “border hopping” or “long distance swimming”. Others have argued against the formation of the team on the grounds that the Olympics should be contested between athletes who represent the passport they carry. What these ignorant people don’t realise is that this team is the closest entity we have ever had to the original Olympic ideal. Not since 1908 has a group of athletes embodied de Coubertin’s vision so poignantly.

Sport has replaced war as an outlet for nationalism in most of the world but it has not eradicated conflict and the suffering it brings. A gold medal for Mardini or Mabika will not bring peace to Syria or the DRC but it may bring hope and joy to millions of displaced people around the world – and isn’t that the point of sport? Hope and joy are the driving forces of competition and play. Hope and joy is what fuels our desire to watch the Olympics. It was this sentiment that inspired a French Baron to revive an ancient competition and pursue a noble cause to unite all people under 5 connected rings. 

CONQA Sport is hosting our second annual Elite Sport Summit in Cape Town on 5 & 6 October 2016.