Olympic Team Refugee Symbolism Is Depressing

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A week ago, this year’s Olympics came to a close; and as they did, I found myself reflecting on what made this year’s games extraordinary. It wasn’t Simone Biles’ five medals (though, let’s be real, that chick is fucking boss), nor was it Usain Bolt’s unequivocal sweep, cementing his title as the world’s fastest man in the final games before retirement.

No–what defines the Summer 2016 Olympics is its status as a unique snapshot of global politics. And, more specifically, the emergence of the first ever Team Refugee–formed by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) to provide opportunity to the elite athletes displaced from their countries of origin and forced into a foreign land of uncertainty.

There will always be phenomenal athletes who represent the closest brush with perfection at their particular moment in time. These individuals are incredibly impressive, but their influence is fleeting. It is the events which surround the games that color their significance.

Team Refugee was made up of ten athletes, originally from the Democratic Republic Of Congo, Syria, South Sudan, and Ethiopia respectively. In the opening and closing ceremonies, the symbolic flag that they carried was that of the Olympic committee itself: five circles interlocking, meant to represent the coming together of the world’s nations.

The Olympics have always represented a strange and complex marker of the global condition. This year’s games have in some ways been a perfect example of this phenomena. At times they have seemed grotesque in their seemingly irresponsible disregard of the crumbling sociopolitical and ecological state of the destination in which they took place.

In the months prior to the event, the city of Rio suffered through political unrest and global scrutiny. Off-duty law enforcement officials staged protests, holding banners at the Rio airport that warned visitors that they could not protect them. The signs they held read “Welcome To Hell.”

To say the least, these factors comprised a complex backdrop for a global event with the ostensible goal of unity.

Furthermore, this year marked the 80th anniversary of one of the most bizarre Olympic games to date: those which were held in 1936 under the direction of the Third Reich, Germany’s Nazi party. Hitler’s Germany.

It was the first time in history that the idea of an Olympic boycott was proposed as an attempted preemptive strike to bring attention to human rights violations. Ultimately the games happened as planned. Many historians laud this as a missed opportunity.

Let us reflect on the xenophobic, nationalistic rhetoric that one Donald Trump has applied to the current international refugee crisis, and specifically asylum seekers of Muslim descent (of which, of course, there has been a recent onslaught due to the ongoing conflict in Syria and surrounding locales). He is a candidate who has drawn comparison to Hitler himself.

Trump’s ignorant stance, and accompanying fear-mongering tactics, have contributed to a dangerous and inaccurate prejudice which informs an unfounded and far-reaching negative perception of what it means to be a refugee. Olympian Yiech Pur Biel, originally from South Sudan, told the IOC, “We are not bad people. It’s only a name to be a refugee.”

Yusra Mardini, a refugee and Olympian swimmer from Syria, actually swam to escape her fate in her war-torn country of origin. After the dingy she was aboard lost engine power, Mardini and her sister (along with two other young men) jumped off the boat. She swam for about three and a half hours, keeping the boat with its other passengers on course.

Mardini reflected on the experience to the New York Times. “I’m thinking, what? I’m a swimmer, and I’m going to die in the water in the end?”

But she didn’t die. Eventually, Mardini found safety and settled in Berlin, Germany. She trained for her Olympic debut at the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04–one the city’s oldest pools, built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympics. Talk about irony.

Wealthier countries with resources to dedicate to training and maintaining athletes and athletic facilities routinely dominate the Olympics. This year was no exception: it’s a global stage upon which to assert dominance. To remind everybody who is in charge. It’s…a bit gross when you think about it.

But then, again, there was Team Refugee. A metaphorical reminder that change is possible, that acceptance and progress can occur. Madrini told the IOC, “We still are humans. We are not only refugees. We are like everyone in the world. We can do something. We can achieve something.”

Team Refugee completed the games without winning a single medal. The United States, in contrast, finished with a total 121 medals to our name; the majority of those were gold. New beginnings are a beautiful thing, but unfortunately, the toxic combination of capitalism and nationalism often means that success is reserved for a select few.