If bravery was an Olympic sport, the 10 athletes who make up the first-ever refugee team in Rio would be odds-on for a clean sweep of the gold medals.
From Yusra Mardini, a teenage swimmer from Syria who braved a Mediterranean crossing in a leaky dinghy, to Popole Misenga, who spent eight days hiding in a forest as a terrified child to flee bloody fighting, each of the refugee athletes have overcome daunting odds to maintain their Olympic dreams.
Mardini, 18, spoke of her delight on Saturday at the prospect of participating in Rio, where she will compete in the 100 meters butterfly and 100m freestyle.“It’s absolutely an honor for me to be here,” Mardini told a press conference Saturday.
Less than a year ago, Mardini was swimming for her life.
During a perilous journey to Lesbos, the engine of their packed dinghy failed and the craft began taking on water.
Mardini and her sister jumped into the water, grabbed a rope and and spent the next three-and-a half-hours in the choppy water towing the boat to safety.
Mardini, who has now settled in Germany with her family as a refugee, says she will proudly represent Syria, the Olympic movement and her recently adopted homeland when she competes in Brazil.
“It’s for my country, for Germany and the Olympic Committee, because they gave me all the support to make it possible,” Mardini said.
Mardini is joined in the refugee ranks by another Syrian swimmer, Rami Anis. Anis fled Syria in 2011 to avoid being enlisted into the army, relocating to Belgium from Istanbul in October last year.
“I’m very proud to be here,” Rami said.
“But I feel a bit of sadness that I’m not participating as a Syrian. We are representing people who have lost their human rights and are facing injustices.” The 25-year-old butterfly and freestyle swimmer described the refugee team as a group that “does not despair.” “We have iron wills. We feel sad of course because of the wars in our countries,” Anis said.
For Congelese judoka Misenga, recalling the devastating toll that conflict has had on his family was too much. The 24-year-old broke down in tears when he was asked to comment on what message he hoped to send through his Olympic participation.
Separated from his family, he hid in the jungle for eight days before being rescued and taken to a centre for displaced children in Kinshasa.