Yusra Mardini, a 17-year-old Syrian swimmer, endured harrowing physical and emotional travails to escape her native Damascus and make it to Berlin. This summer, she may face another journey: flying from Germany to Rio to compete in the Olympics.
In August, after fleeing Syria, Mardini and her older sister, Sarah, boarded a packed inflatable boat near Izmir in Turkey bound for Lesbos. Most of the 20 or so passengers didn’t know how to swim, so when the motor broke down, the sisters kicked through the waves for much of the 3
Given the refugee crisis amid Syria’s civil war and the geopolitical tension wrought by extremist groups such as the Islamic State and Boko Haram, the International Olympic Committee established a $2 million emergency fund in September 2015 for National Olympic Committees to help displaced athletes. To date, 13 NOCs, including those of Greece, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark and Slovenia, have received $1.4 million.
The IOC is in the process of identifying several promising athletes who have the potential to qualify for the Summer Games in Rio. In many cases, these athletes are actively seeking asylum.
Mardini is one such athlete. So is Raheleh Asemani, an Iranian living in Belgium who will compete in taekwondo, and Popole Misenga, a Congolese living in Brazil who will compete in judo. In Rio, these athletes would not represent any one nation but will compete under the Olympic flag.
During the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, 59 athletes from Yugoslavia and Macedonia competed in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona under the Olympic flag. To allow banished or stateless athletes to compete, the IOC repeated this measure at the 2000 and 2012 Summer Games and the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Both Mardini and Asemani have been awarded IOC Olympic Solidarity scholarships. Through this program and its Olympic Scholarships for Athletes program, the IOC tries to help smaller NOCs prepare and qualify athletes for the Olympics. As part of this effort, the IOC has been calling upon all international federations and NOCs to highlight top-level refugee athletes who potentially have what it takes to qualify for the Olympics.
“The priority for the IOC is to focus primarily on athletes who need the assistance the most and to place them on an equal footing with their competitors from more developed regions of the world,” said Emmanuelle Moreau, head of media relations at the IOC.
This move is in keeping with the true spirit of the Games, said Jon Velie, a Norman, Okla.-based immigration attorney specializing in athletes and Olympians.
“The Olympics bring out the best in nations, even when they may be at their worst,” he said. “These [refugee athletes] will provide hope for their embattled brethren and give them a stage to show their spirit of perseverance through sport while their homes and life may be in ruin.”
Volunteers at Mardini’s refugee housing came up with the idea of making a list of the refugees’ various hobbies. After the Mardinis said they were strong swimmers, volunteers brought them to Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, a Berlin swimming club (Wasserfreunde means “water friends” in German). Coach Sven Spannekrebs remembers the girls were shy about jumping into the pool but noticed “good basic technical education” once they did and figured training the younger sister was worth a try. The IOC provided support for Mardini’s training through the Olympic Solidarity scholarship.
Though Mardini had endured grueling physical feats to escape Syria, the time in transit and out of the pool had disrupted her training regimen. Spannekrebs has supported Mardini as she trains in a pool constructed for the 1936 Games. Though she was hoping to race in the 200 and 400 meters, Spannekrebs has identified the longer events as more suited to her strengths.
“There are chances that the Olympic dream might come true for Yusra and her family, which all of our club wishes, but at the same time she is one of more than a million, so let’s hope there will be a perspective for all of them, be it here or in their home countries,” Spannekrebs said. “And it is amazing what sport can do; I learned a lot about its magic, although I thought I knew a little before.”
“We welcome the IOC’s support, which gives the athlete a chance to pursue her Olympic dream,” German Olympic Sports Confederation Director General Michael Vesper said in a statement. “At the same time, this great and humane gesture acknowledges the commitment of her club, Wasserfreunde Spandau 04, and all who help Yusra in Berlin.”
Mardini’s parents and younger siblings have joined her in Berlin, and they share housing near the pool. The German Olympic Sports Confederation and the swim club are helping with her refugee paperwork.
In Germany, there has been backlash about the risks refugees pose to national security and public assistance funds. Those who support refugee aid, by contrast, are convinced this sort of plan is an important and emblematic gesture of the necessity to assist this portion of humanity.
“Programs like these are, quite literally, lifelines for refugees fleeing terrorism,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based U.S. immigration policy organization. “Whether it is the IOC helping elite athletes seeking refuge or churches resettling refugee families, at times like this, public and private institutions have a powerful impact on the debate.”
Sports programs can be the pathway to a sustainable future for many refugees, and the opportunities extend beyond those offered by the IOC.
In Kenya, for example, more than 20 refugee athletes are already receiving training and support from the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation Refugee Athletic Support program, founded and chaired by Olympian and former marathon world record holder Tegla Loroupe.
The IOC’s efforts to allocate funds for refugees have been integral to helping Mardini, Asemani and Misenga, who fled the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo three years ago when his mother was murdered.
But still more athletes are looking for support. Several other Syrian refugees — cyclists Ahmad Badr Waid and Nazir Jaser and triathlete Mohamad Masoo — have been identified as having the potential to make successful Olympic bids.
As the search continues for more refugee athletes, the IOC’s program of finding and espousing elite refugee athletes helps personalize what has been a sweeping and amorphous refugee narrative, according to Michael Schirp, deputy head of media relations and public affairs at the German Olympic Sports Confederation.
“Maybe we’ll identify two or three,” he said. “But this is not the point. The point is that they stand for these million. They are one of the very popular chances to give face to the anonymity.”