Raise public awareness of refugees’ hardships even after Tokyo Games

It has been encouraging to see refugee athletes dedicating themselves to sports without giving in to the adversity of having to flee their home country due to conflict or persecution. It is hoped that these performances by members of the refugee teams create an opportunity for the public to deepen their concern for and understanding of refugee-related issues.

Refugee teams have been formed for athletes who have been recognized as refugees in various countries around the world to participate in the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Such teams were first formed at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. At the Tokyo Games, 35 refugee athletes were selected to compete, about triple the number for the Rio Games. The increase evidently reflects the reality in which there are a growing number of athletes who are capable of competing at the Olympics and Paralympics but have fled their country and become refugees.

There are about 26.4 million refugees in the world. Together with displaced people who remain in their countries and asylum seekers, the overall number of such people has doubled in the past 10 years to about 80 million.

A majority of refugees come from five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. In these nations, civil wars and tyranny are ongoing, with many people unable to flee abroad losing their homes and forced to live in harsh conditions.

Refugee athletes have undergone harrowing experiences, such as risking their life to flee their country and taking shelter amid difficult circumstances. They have expressed their desire to compete to empower other refugees.

Swimmer Abbas Karimi, an Afghan native who currently lives in the United States, finished eighth in the men’s 50-meter butterfly at the Tokyo Paralympics.

Kimia Alizadeh, a native of Iran who had fled to Germany, defeated the two-time Olympic reigning champion on her way to finishing fourth in the 57-kilogram division of women’s taekwondo at the Tokyo Olympics.

A refugee athlete from Syria stressed that people should “just believe in yourself” and do their best, and that as long as people retain hope, dreams will come true. More than a few young refugees must have been encouraged.

It should also not be forgotten that many athletes believe forming such refugee teams should not have to be a reality and want to be able to represent their home country the next time they compete.

The task is formidable for the international community to stabilize the situation by engaging with countries that have caused refugees to exist.

At the Tokyo Olympics, a Belarusian athlete was ordered by the Belarus government to return home after criticizing her coaching staff. She sought protection from Japanese police and eventually defected to Poland. Afghan athletes, who had once given up on participating in the Tokyo Paralympics due to political upheaval at home, arrived in Japan with support from relevant countries.

Through news on these refugee athletes, many people must surely have become more aware of international politics and issues related to refugees. Continuous efforts are crucial to establish one of the core concepts of the Tokyo Games: “Unity in Diversity.”

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Sept. 5, 2021.