For the first time in Olympic history, athletes on the "Refugee Olympic Team (ROT)" are taking part in the Games that are under way in Rio de Janeiro, with no national flags or anthems representing their home countries. We hereby send hearty cheers to the 10 ROT members, who are living their dreams after being driven out of their war-ravaged countries and experiencing many difficulties.
Today, the world hosts more than 65 million refugees as well as internally displaced people. ROT athletes may be just a handful of the fortunate people among them, but their presence is certain to encourage many fellow refugees who are concerned about their future.
ROT athletes were selected from a group of 40-plus athletes whom the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has supported through a special $2 million fund in conjunction with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Yusra Mardini, an 18-year-old ROT swimmer who fled civil war-torn Syria, crossed the Aegean Sea in August last year aboard a rubber boat carrying about 20 refugees. After engine trouble, she and other refugees plunged into the water and swam over to the Greek shoreline while pushing their boat. They were eventually taken in by Germany as refugees.
Mardini received warm applause from spectators when she won her preliminary heat in the women's 100-meter butterfly on Aug. 6, though she couldn't reach the semifinals as her time placed her 41st overall.
Other ROT members include two judoka who were separated from their families in the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo and are now living in Brazil, as well as five athletes originally from South Sudan who distinguished themselves at refugee camps in neighboring Kenya.
Countries where ROT members are originally from have also sent their own athletes to the Rio Olympics. Since ROT athletes have no countries to represent, they may well be harboring mixed feelings. However, the Olympic Charter stipulates: "The Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries." Mardini's pledge to compete as a representative of refugees around the world, not of a specific country, may represent the very origin of the Olympic spirit.
The presence of the ROT itself represents the harsh realities faced by the world today. The refugee population of over 65 million amounts to the 21st most populous country in the world. Ever since the Lillehammer Winter Olympics in 1994, the United Nations and other organizations have called for cease-fires every time the Games were held, but wars continued and the number of refugees has been on the rise. As the Rio Olympics continue, the civil war in Syria shows no sign of abating.
Olympic delegations from Japan and other countries need to be aware of these realities. We spectators of the Games should also take the issue seriously.
The IOC is seeking to send another ROT to the 2020 Tokyo Games. In the meantime, many of the refugee athletes at Rio 2016 are longing to compete as representatives of their countries of origin in the 2020 Games. What can we do to make their dreams come true? It is worthwhile for everyone to ask themselves this question during and after the Rio Games.