By Hawa Monier
The Rio Olympics 2016 has two specific elements that set it apart from previous Games: the largest Palestinian team ever at the Olympics, and a refugee team comprising of athletes with extraordinary abilities which would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
The opening ceremony of the Olympics saw the Palestinian team in all their customary regalia. While Palestine has been increasing efforts and struggling against the tightening Israeli blockade on its lands, asserting a presence in international forums like the Olympics is vital to the cause and shows the Palestinian people’s cry for and determination in asserting their national identity.
Six athletes are representing Palestine this year in high profile events: swimming, track and field. Palestinian athletes are also competing in judo and dressage riding. Unfortunately for the team though, Israel did not allow one member of Team Palestine out of Gaza to attend the Olympics.
— The IMEU (@theIMEU) August 11, 2016
According to Christian Zimmerman, the Palestinian dressage rider competing at the Games, Palestinian Olympians “want to prove that we are an independent entity and that we are represented in the international scene even if on a small scale.”
Rio 2016 also sees a refugee team enter the spotlight – another positive aspect that has captivated audiences worldwide. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and refugees hope that this team’s presence will sprout more attention to the refugee crises which continue to dominate news broadcasts.
Ten refugees competing from four different countries, were announced by the IOC on June 3, giving hope to people displaced by war and social unrest all over the world. These athletes have pledged to inspire people across all countries to bring awareness to the intensely difficult conditions under which refugees live.
Competing today in the men's 800m! “I can show to my fellow refugees that they have a chance and a hope in life." https://t.co/P4Og504n73
— UNHCR United Kingdom (@UNHCRUK) August 12, 2016
Five runners from South Sudan, two swimmers from Syria, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and a marathon runner from Ethiopia marched under the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony on August 5 at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio.
IOC president, Thomas Bach, said the inclusion of the Refugee Team would bring global attention to the magnitude of the refugee crisis and send a message to the world. “It is a signal to the international community that refugees are our fellow human beings and are an enrichment to society,” he said.
He added that, “These 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.”
— UNFPA Palestine (@UNFPAPALESTINE) August 5, 2016
The IOC will cater for a full support group to provide all the logistical, technical and coaching needs of the team members.
Speaking at a press conference at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, Bach said the athletes had been selected based on two criteria: recognition by UNHCR and their sporting credentials.
Syrian refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini was widely hailed as a hero when she and her sister swam while pushing a dinghy of refugees trapped at sea. Mardini won her first heat but did not advance further. However, she stands tall as a hero and a pillar of strength for the dispersed Syrian population.
(Additional information: Arab Today, Rio 2016 Official Site)