Like millions of my compatriots I shall be spending August and September in front of the television screen cheering on Team GB athletes as they compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It is a time of national pride for athletes and spectators alike. For athletes their years of dedicated training may result in the raising of their national flag and the playing of their national anthem, but what if you have no flag to drape over your shoulders on your victory lap, no anthem to bring a tear to your eye on the podium, no team or supporters to share your achievement with because you have no country, because you are a refugee?
Rio 2016 will make history for the Olympic movement as for the first time there will be a Refugee Olympic Team sponsored by the International Olympic Committee. The Refugee Olympic Team will be afforded the same status as all other national teams: they will be given a special team uniform; their own accommodation in the Olympic Village; they will enter the Olympic Stadium at the Opening Ceremony under the Olympic flag and if they win Gold then the Olympic anthem will be played and the Olympic flag raised.
The reason for this unprecedented move by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is a response to the global crisis of refugees which are now at their highest levels since World War II. More than 60 million people — half of them children — have fled violence or persecution and are now refugees and internally displaced persons. Lord McConnell wrote powerfully in this blog only a few days ago of his first-hand experiences in the Kawergosk Refugee Camp in Kurdistan, northern Iraq. How the world should respond to such vast movements of peoples is one of the greatest challenges of our time. The answers are difficult but they must begin by focusing not on shared humanity not different nationality.
Launching the Refugee Olympic Team last week the IOC President, Thomas Bach, said: “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. 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.”
In making such remarks the IOC President was expressing something of the ideals of the ancient Olympic games that have not always been at the forefront in the modern era. The entire purpose of the ancient games was to promote peace between warring city states by creating a new supranational common identity. The games were held in the precinct of Zeus in Olympia which all states recognised as sacred ground. The organisers expressly forbid any athletes from wearing or expressing anything that would identify or promote their state of origin. Their oath was to leave their national identity at the temple gates and enter into the arena together as Olympians. Not a glib gesture to make, particularly is you are a Spartan, but they managed it 3000 years ago, could we manage it now?
The ancient ideal of a shared supranational identity is maintained in the modern era. Through the shared Olympic truce, the shared Olympic Village and the Closing Ceremony. Whereas at the Opening Ceremony athletes enter the arena behind their national flag and with their national teams, at the Closing Ceremony athletes enter the arena mingled together as they are now fellow Olympians. It is a symbolic expression of the belief that to fully embrace humanity we must be able to at least temporarily rise above national loyalties. The presence of the Refugee Olympic Team will be a powerful presence at the Games of that hope.
They will be everyone’s ‘second team’ in Rio but the question is if we follow the ancient ideal of Olympism should Refugee Olympic Team in fact not be our first? And if the world can unite behind a sporting team at the Rio Games can they also come together to better respond to the urgent challenge which underlies the reason for their existence?
Michael Bates, who is currently on leave of absence from the House of Lords, is 1000 miles into a 2000 mile solo walk from Buenos Aries to Rio de Janeiro to raise awareness for the Olympic truce and to raise funds for Unicef supported by his wife Xuelin. You can follow their progress at www.walkfortruce.org