New Team on the Block! Rio’s Medal-Winning Olympic Refugee Team Makes History [Guest Editorial]

Brazil. Refugee Olympic Team appears at the 129th session of the International Olympic Committee
The team of refugee athletes at a press conference after the session. ; For the first time, the International Olympic Committee has created a team comprised of refugees. They will compete as the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016. The team includes two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a marathon runner from Ethiopia and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan. All of them have escaped violence or persecution in their own countries and cannot compete under their own national flags.

This guest editorial was written by Susanne Beilmann, Social Media Community Manager,

UNHCR Latin America.

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro closed last week with fireworks, flag-waving and cheering. Athletes and their fans finally found the time to think about two weeks of incredible performances. World records fell and medals were won as many athletes demonstrated superhuman feats of strength. But amid all the cheering, one important event took place which will put these Rio Olympics straight into the history books: for the first time since the inception of the Games, a team of refugee athletes competed.

The idea of a team of refugee athletes came about in October 2014, when International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach presented a novel idea to the United Nations General Assembly – that a team composed entirely of refugees who were also athletes should compete in the next Olympics. This team would show the world that refugees are people just like all of us, except that they have been forced into extraordinary situations by events beyond their control. The goal of the proposal was to raise worldwide awareness of and increase solidarity for refugees and displaced persons as the world’s migrant crisis was already starting to hit the headlines.

With the support of the United Nations Refugee Agency, the UNHCR, ten athletes were chosen based on athletic ability, verified refugee status and personal circumstances. Two swimmers from Syria, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one marathoner from Ethiopia, and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan made up the 2016 Refugee Olympic Team that competed in Rio. For these 10 men and women, this was an opportunity to represent those who – like them – had been forcibly displaced throughout the world. They would inspire and motivate refugees to keep working to better their own circumstances. As Yiech Pur Biel, a 21-year-old runner from South Sudan, said: “I can show to my fellow refugees that they have a chance and a hope in life. Through education, but also in running, you can change the world.”

This initiative came at a crucial moment, as earlier this year 65.3 million people throughout the world – the highest number since World War II – have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution and conflict. “Their participation in the Olympics is a tribute to the courage and perseverance of all refugees in overcoming adversity and building a better future for themselves and their families,” says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi.

Brazil. South Sudanese refugee, Yiech Pur Biel, runs the 800-metres for the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio
Olympic history in the making, as Yiech Pur Biel, 21, runs heat four of the 800-metres competition in the Olympic stadium in Rio. ; For the first time in Olympic history, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has created a team comprised of refugees who will compete as the Refugee Olympic Team in Rio de Janeiro in August 2016. Yiech Pur Biel was forced to flee the fighting in Sudan in 2005, he ended up on his own growing up in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. He started playing football there, but grew frustrated at having to rely so much on his teammates. With running he felt greater control over his own destiny. He competes for the Refugee Olympic Team in the 800m in Rio.

During the Rio competitions, the refugee athletes showed the world their prowess and resilience. Their participation in the Olympics helped raise awareness about the plight of forcibly displaced people, and changed the public’s opinion about refugees. As IOC President Thomas Bach said during the closing ceremony, “You have inspired us with your talent and human spirit. You are a symbol of hope to the millions of refugees around the world.”

Still, the need to find lasting political solutions to the world’s conflicts and humanitarian crises remains. On September 19, the United Nations will host a high-level summit with the objective of finding a more coordinated and humane approach to addressing large movements of refugees and migrants. The following day, US President Barack Obama will host a Leaders’ Summit on the Global Refugee Crisis, which will seek to increase funding for humanitarian appeals, increase the rate of resettlement of refugees, as well as support increased labour and educational opportunities for refugees wherever they are. These two events will focus on long-term solutions for refugees, hopefully resulting in real policy changes and shared responsibility for refugees among all nations and governments.


Support refugees by signing the UNHCR petition that will be delivered to UN headquarters during the UN General Assembly high-level summit on September 19. The petition will ask governments to ensure that refugee children get an education, ensure refugee families have somewhere safe to live, and ensure refugees can work.

Click here to sign:

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