Culture At Large

Seeing Ourselves in the Refugee Olympic Team

Stephen Woodworth

Despite the Olympics’ long history, there are always a number of “firsts” each time the games take place. New sports will be introduced, countries will stand on the podium for the very first time, and world records will be smashed. This year in Rio, the most significant “first” occurred before competition began: the introduction of the Refugee Olympic Team. Waving flags featuring the Olympic rings, the team entered the opening ceremonies to a standing ovation.

In addition to Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, who helped to guide a sinking boat to safety on the open seas, the Refugee Olympic Team features nine other athletes from four different countries (Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo). The team grew from the vision of Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, who recognized the unique opportunity offered by the Olympics to highlight a global tragedy. According to recent United Nations reports, our world is now home to more than 65 million refugees, more than any other time since World War II. In light of such staggering statistics, Bach said the refugee team will be “a symbol of hope for all the refugees in our world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” His words seem to ring particularly true this summer in Rio. While for many the Olympics may offer an opportunity to gaze upon the stunning athletic ability of the world’s elite, the inclusion of the Refugee Olympic Team has given spectators a much-needed reminder that survival and triumph in the face of evil is far more inspiring than any victory won in competition.

We see our longing for a better place, where the land will no longer shift beneath our feet.

Beyond being a feel-good tale of overcoming unspeakable odds, the story of the Refugee Olympic Team also inspires us, I suspect, because in these athletes’ faces we see something of our own. We see our human frailty and our promise. We see the insecurity of this life and our longing for a better place, where the land will no longer shift beneath our feet. And we see this vulnerability in the midst of athletic prowess, bodily perfection and global acclaim, for both the traditional athletes and those of the Refugee Olympic Team.

In the spectacle of the Olympic games, the world turns its gaze towards the gods of sport, who descend upon our television screens for a season and have us rooting for our home countries. But in Rio, the Refugee Olympic Team offers something far more lasting by reminding us that our deepest longings will never be satisfied with medals of gold. For what we want most is for the war in our own hearts to end. We want to surrender and go to our true dwelling place. The presence of this special team not only reminds us that refugees are people just like us, but also that we are also like them. In so doing, these refugees, who became gods for a short time, help point to the God who became a refugee.

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