This year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made a historical move by introducing a refugee team to compete at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de JaneiroBrazil. Displaced from their native countries due to unrest and conflict, the ten athletes include five competitors from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Republic of Congo, and one from Ethiopia. The participants are currently in Rio to take part in the swimming, athletics, and judo competitions.
The first of the ten athletes to compete was 18-year-old swimmer, Yusra Mardini. The Syrian athlete was victorious in the women’s 100-meter butterfly, and while she didn’t progress to the semi-finals, she’s set to compete in the women’s 100-meter butterfly freestyle on Wednesday.
However, her success at the games is only a small victory when compared to the act of heroism she displayed last year. Mardini and her sister fled their hometown of Damascus, Syria to board a dinghy headed to Greece from Turkey. Shortly after the journey began, the motor broke down on the six-person boat—carrying 20 people. In a selfless move, Mardini, her sister, and two other individuals leapt into the water and swam for three hours while pushing the sinking boat. Her extraordinary move saved everyone on board, and they eventually arrived safely to the Greek island of Lesbos. Mardini’s treacherous journey continued for another 25 days, as she and her sister traveled through five countries on foot until they reached Berlin, Germany where they were miraculously reunited with their parents.
Prior to qualifying for the refugee team, Mardini was a competitive swimmer in her home country of Syria, and was supported by the Syrian Olympic Committee. Despite the turbulent war that ripped through her country, she continued to train. Once she had settled in Berlin (the city she now calls home), Mardini joined a local swimming club. There, she was introduced to coach Sven Spannekrebs who saw potential in the young athlete. Mardini originally aspired to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but her dream became a reality sooner than expected when she made the cut to join IOC’s first ever refugee team. During a press a conference, Mardini made a heartfelt statement that revealed her desire to change the perception of refugees around the world, “I want everyone to think refugees are normal people who had their homelands and lost them, not because they wanted to run away and be refugees, but because they have dreams in their lives and they had to go,” she explained.
The IOC refugee initiative aims to raise awareness of the ongoing refugee crisis. According to The UN Refugee Agency, there were more than 59 million people displaced from their countries by the end of 2014. Learn more about Olympian swimmer Yusra Mardini’s triumphant journey to Rio in the video below.
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