After completing an arduous and life-threatening journey from Syria to Germany, the 18-year-old swimmer is picking up the threads of an Olympic dream with help from the International Olympic Committee. The committee has identified her as one of 43 promising refugee athletes vying for a spot on the Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA) team.
The elite swimmer showed the stuff she is made of during a perilous night crossing of the Aegean Sea in August. Twenty people were crammed into a small dinghy that began taking on water when its motor failed. Mardini, her sister Sarah and another woman were the only passengers who could swim. The trio jumped overboard, and for three and a half hours they pushed and kicked the dinghy toward shore.
Mardini eventually made it to Berlin. When volunteers discovered that swimming was one of her skills, they put her family in touch with a German swimming club. Now Mardini is on a different journey – that of competing in Rio at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. She says she is not competing just for herself. “I want to represent all the refugees because I want to show everyone that after the pain, after the storm, comes calm days.”
Mardini’s story is appealing for several reasons. It has a fairy-tale quality with its expectation of a happily-ever-after ending. It is a heroic tale of bravery, full of grit, self-sacrifice, and the will to survive and save others. It provides a refreshing counterpoint to the tragic images of refugees drowned at sea, turned back at borders or languishing, their lives on hold, in refugee camps. And Mardini’s journey speaks to the universality of struggle that is part of the human experience.
In a metaphorical sense, we are all refugees. We live in exile – we are spiritually separated from a state of “wholeness.” Like refugees longing for home, we seek to transcend the brokenness in our self and in our world. We look to others to help us when all appears lost. We cling to the side of the dinghy when the motor fails and the night is dark. We push towards the beach and daybreak. We abide in hope.
Through the creation of ROA, the IOC wants to send a message about the importance of hope to refugees. It also wants to draw the world’s attention to the magnitude of the global refugee crisis. While ROA will not solve the crisis of mass human migration, its creation helps promote understanding among people.
In many ways – opening and closing ceremonies, podium presentations, medal standings, team uniforms — the Olympics are about nationhood. National pride, with the podium representing the pinnacle of success for both the athlete and her country, is encouraged and feted during the Games.
But the athletes who will comprise ROA are stateless; they no longer have a country to support them or for whom they can compete. They exist in a kind of civic limbo; they are dependent on the generosity of a global community that is not always welcoming, and on nations that are increasingly concerned with protecting borders. Though small, this team of refugee athletes brings a face to the 60 million displaced persons around the globe for whose well-being the global community must take responsibility.
With the creation of ROA, the IOC has given us a metaphor for tearing down walls, building bridges, opening our hearts and expanding our definition of ‘neighbour.’
Olympism puts sport at the service of society to unite people, foster peace and resolve conflict. With the creation of team ROA, and through the support and training that it is providing for 43 refugee athletes, including the inspiring Yusra Mardini, the IOC is putting its money where its mouth is.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.