“These refugees have no home, no team, no flag, no national anthem,” IOC President Thomas Bach said in a statement. “This will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis. It is also a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society.”
The move by the IOC comes as increasing numbers of migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean Sea have died as their boats have sunk. More than 1,000 such migrants have died since May 21, according to the International Organization for Migration.
On Friday, the IOC president said the “refugee athletes will show the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.”
Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis, Syrian swimmers
Mardini, 18, represented Syria in an international swimming competition in 2012. But she and her sister Sarah fled Syria last summer, and like so many fellow-refugees, they risked their lives trying to get to from Turkey to Greece via a flimsy inflatable boat.
The vessel began taking on water, and most of the 20 passengers aboard couldn’t swim. Mardini and her sister could, so they jumped into the cold water and tried to push the boat toward the shore. Two other passengers joined them. The four eventually made it to the Greek island of Lesbos.
“It would have been shameful if the people on our boat had drowned,” Mardini said in a U.N. Refugee Agency profile. “There were people who didn’t know how to swim. I wasn’t going to sit there and complain that I would drown. If was going to drown, at least I’d drown proud of myself and my sister.”
Mardini later settled in Germany, where she trains.
“The war was hard; sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war. Or sometimes you had training but there was a bomb in the swimming pool” she said at a March news conference. “I want refugees to be proud of me. I want to encourage them.”
Anis, 25, was born in Aleppo, where he began formal training at 14. He became an international swimmer, but at 20, war broke out and his family feared he would be called up to join the army, so he flew to Istanbul to join a brother studying there.
While Anis swam in Turkey, he lacked citizenship there and couldn’t compete. “It’s like someone who is studying, studying, studying and he can’t take the exam,” he said in a U.N profile.
He, like Mardini, got on an inflatable boat and headed for Greece. He landed on the island of Samos, and eventually settled in Belgium, where he now trains under a former Olympic swimmer.
“Swimming is my life,” he said. “The swimming pool is my home.”
Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika, Congolese judo athletes
Misenga, 24, and Mabika, 28, are from Bukavu, one of the hardest-hit areas during the Congolese civil war from 1998 to 2003. The fled their hometowns when they were children and eventually joined Congo’s national judo federation.
Misenga said he was 9 when he fled his hometown and discovered the sport while at a center for displaced children. “When you are a child, you need to have a family to give you instructions about what to do, and I didn’t have one,” he said in a U.N. release. “Judo helped me by giving me serenity, discipline, commitment — everything.”
That’s how Mabika discovered judo, too.
“I got separated from my family and used to cry a lot,” she said in a release. “I started with judo to have a better life.”
But life for them as athletes was not easy. In an interview with the Associated Press, they described harsh training conditions and bad treatment while representing their central African nation during world competitions. They said they were punished for not winning medals, at times being kept in cells with little food or water.
The pair sought asylum while in Brazil during the World Judo Championships in 2013 after they said team officials treated them poorly in Rio, leaving them for three days in a hotel with no food, money or passports.
“A few days before our fight, I was very, very hungry,” Mabika told the Associated Press. “I almost died.”
Misenga and Mabika were successful in gaining asylum in Brazil, however, and now train under a nationally renowned Brazilian judo coach.
“For me, this is incredible,” Misenga told the AP. “The whole world will be watching.”
Yiech Pur Biel, James Nyang Chiengjiek, Anjaline Nadai Lohalith, Rose Nathike Lokonyen and Paulo Amotun Lokoro, South Sudanese middle-distance runners
The five runners had been living in a refugee camp in northwestern Kenya when they were selected to train as potential Olympic runners. They then went to Nairobi to train at a camp run by former women’s marathon record-holder Tegla Loroupe of Kenya.
Biel, 21, fled fighting in South Sudan in 2005, and grew up on his own in a refugee camp. He eventually went from playing soccer to running, and will feature in the 800 meters in Rio. “I focused on my country, South Sudan, because we young people are the people who can change it,” he said in a U.N. profile. “And secondly, I focused on my parents. I need to change the life they are living.”
Lokoro, 24, was a cattle herder a few years ago, until he fled conflict to Kenya. “Before I came here I did not even have training shoes,” he said of the training camp in Nairobi. “Now we have trained and trained, until we see ourselves at a good level, and now we know fully how to be athletes.” He will run the 1,500 meters.
Chiengjiek, 28, who like Biel will run the 800 meters, fled at the age of 13 amid fear of kidnapped and forced to become a child solider. It was while living in a Kenyan refugee camp, and attending a school in a town known for its long-distance runners, that Chiengjiek discovered his passion for the sport.
“I realized I could make it as a runner,” he said in a U.N. profile. “If God gives you a talent, you have to use it.”
Lokonyen, now 23, fled war in South Sudan with her family and arrived in Kenya in 2002. A few years later, her parents returned, but Lokonyen and her siblings stayed behind.
She competed in school running competitions but didn’t begin formal training after participating in a 10k organized by Loroupe’s foundation. She will compete in the women’s 800 meters.
“I will be very happy and I will just work hard and prove myself,” she said. “I will be representing my people there at Rio.”
Yonas Kinde, Ethiopian marathon runner
Kinde, 36, has been living in Luxembourg for five years. And in between taking French classes and driving a taxi, he runs. A lot.
“I normally train every day, but when I heard this news [about the refugee team] I trained two times per day, every day, targeting for these Olympic Games,” he said in a U.N. profile. “It’s a big motivation.”
Kinde left Ethiopia, where he said “it’s very dangerous for my life,” and received international protection in 2013 in Luxembourg, where he’s trained ever since. He reached the qualifying standards for the Olympic Games during last year’s Frankfurt Marathon, completing the race in 2 hours 17 minutes.
“I can’t explain [to] you the feeling,” he said of running. “It has a power. It’s amazing.”