The 2016 Rio Games are already unique. No other Games in modern history has had its build-up vexed by such a bewildering mass of political frictions, economic shocks and doping controversies. But as the Games of the XXXI Olympiad shift into delivery mode with Friday’s Opening Ceremony, there is the guarantee of something beautiful being presented to the watching world.
Yes of course the creation, for the first time in history, of a team of refugee athletes is an enormous PR flourish for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at a time when it finds itself under unprecedented pressure over the revelations of cheating and corruption across its domain that have become public knowledge during the last two years.
If the Olympic Movement could represent itself in sound right now, it would do so with a screech of discordant feedback. But the appearance in the Maracanã Stadium of the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), marching under the Olympic flag, will sound out like a cleanly struck chord.
Ten individuals, with grief and courage in common, have come through almost a year of intensive training to earn selection for the greatest sporting show on earth. They are ready to make history.
Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis, who escaped the war in their native Syria, will both compete in the swimming events. There are two judoka – Yolande Mabika and Popole Misenga - who have settled in Rio having fled from civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire.
The remaining six team members compete in athletics. Yonas Kinde, a refugee from a troubled area of Ethiopia, has been preparing in Belgium for running the marathon. Meanwhile, in a training camp at Ngong, 35 kilometres outside Nairobi, five runners who fled war-torn South Sudan for the Kakuma refugee camp in north-west Kenya been preparing for a range of track events. James Nyang Chiengjiek will run 400 metres, Yiech Pur Biel and Rose Nathike Lokonyen will compete over 800m and Paul Amotun Lokoro and Anjelina Nadai Lohalith will both run 1500m.
On June 29, IOC President Thomas Bach met with the team that will support the Team in Rio - five coaches, five doctors and seven officials including the Chef de Mission Tegla Loroupe, Kenya’s former marathon world record holder and founder of the Peace Foundation that bears her name in 2003.
“There has never been such a team before - the IOC has never organised such a team before so it is new for everyone, it is without precedent," said Bach. “The Refugee Olympic Team reflects the true Olympic spirit.
“We want to give these refugee athletes a home, we want to offer them the same opportunity as all the other athletes of the world. We want to send a message to the world that these refugee athletes, like all refugees, can be an enrichment. They are a fantastic expression of the Olympic spirit.”
Loroupe, a three-time Olympian who was named a United Nations Ambassador for Sport in 2006 and five years later received the IOC’s Women and Sport Award in recognition of her hugely successful humanitarian work across Africa, added: “This Refugee Olympic Team will give hope to hope-less people. These athletes unite us all together - they are a symbol not just for sport but for the whole world. The refugee issue is not a new one, it has happened before but this team gives us all an idea of our shared humanity.”
These ten paths to Olympic competition are profoundly different from most. The challenges these team members have had to overcome to reach this point are a world away from the common run of injuries and untimely losses of form. They are, truthfully, death-defying.
The 18-year-old Mardini will be the first of the ROT team in action as she is scheduled to compete in the heats of the women's 100m butterfly on Saturday, August 6, before contesting the women’s 100m freestyle.
Less than a year ago she had to swim for her life - and for the lives of many others - after the overcrowded dinghy in which a group of 20 migrants were attempting to make a night crossing from Turkey to Greece began to take on water when the engine failed.
"We were the only four who knew how to swim,” she told the Olympic News Service. “I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like… done. I don’t know if I can describe that.”
But she rejected the suggestion it was a nightmarish memory. “Not at all,” she said. “I remember that without swimming I would never be alive, maybe because of the story of this boat. It’s a positive memory for me."
Mardini's extraordinary journey ended with her reaching Berlin, where she was able to resume her swimming career and was invited to join the Olympic team that she believes will "show the world refugee is not a bad word".
Of her companions on that perilous night, she adds: "They all know that I’m here, they’re always supporting me, saying, 'You deserve it, you're amazing'.
“My message at these Games is just, 'Never give up'".
Mardini and her sister, whose home in Damascus was destroyed in the Syrian conflict, had fled the fighting and trekked through camps in Lebanon as they set out to make new lives for themselves in Europe.
Their experience was mirrored by the two judoka who sought political asylum after competing at the 2013 World Championships in Rio - Misenga, 24, who competes in the 90kg category, and Mabika, 28, whose category is 78kg. Both come from the eastern city of Bukavu which was devastated in recent conflicts, during which Misenga’s mother was killed and his brother went missing.
“We went through a lot of suffering in Congo, and this is still the case nowadays,” said Mabika. “This is the case of all the refugees around the world who are suffering from their family losses, from the wars, the killings.”
For Misenga, who has a young child with his Brazilian wife and spends almost six hours a day on buses travelling from his home in a working class area of the city to his training venue, the reality of competing at the Olympic Games is hard to take in.
“When I think that I am now an Olympic athlete, it feels really strange,” he reflected. “It's real; it's not a dream, but the truth, the reality. I am an Olympic athlete.”
Mardini’s compatriot Anis, a 25-year-old who will contest the men’s 100m butterfly event, has been preparing close to the Belgian city of Ghent. Kinde, meanwhile, has been training in Luxembourg, where he fled his native Ethiopia in 2012. “I am here and I am alive, so I’m happy and lucky also,” said the 36-year-old who reached the Rio 2016 qualifying standard at last year’s Frankfurt Marathon.
“It’s a very good chance for me,” said Kinde. "Because before I’ve won many races but I don’t have a nationality to participate at the Olympic Games or European Championships.
Yusra Mardini and fellow Syrian swimmer Rami Anis pose for the camera after arriving in Rio to compete for the Refugee Olympic Team ©Getty Images
“Now it’s very important and very good news for the Refugee Team and refugee athletes for Olympic Solidarity to give this chance.”
Having fled Bentiu in South Sudan in 2002 in order to avoid having to join the army and participate in the war, 400m runner Chiengjiek, now 28, is now settled in Kenya after joining the Kakuma Camp thanks to the help of the UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency.
He went to school and started running there, eventually showing promise three years ago in athletics trials organised by the Tegla Loroupe Foundation.
“Training is just a matter of working hard,” he said. “I know that everything in this world is about working - if you’re given the chance you have to utilise it in the right way and pray to God to give you this chance.
“My dream of course is to get good results in the Olympics and also my dream is to help people if I get that chance. Without support I cannot be so because I’ve been supported by someone, I want to be able to support someone.”
Pur Biel, 21, fled his home country for Kenya’s Kakuma camp in 2005 and spent 11 years there until last year when he heard that the Tegla Loroupe Foundation was organising athletics trials in Kakuma. Biel took part in the trials, showed promising results and was selected to join the Foundation. He has been training there ever since.
“It will be an amazing time in life because it will be the first achievement in my life to go to that place," he said. "I’ve never been out of Kakuma between 2005 and 2014 but to go out to Brazil it will be a great moment in my life and a story to my children and grandchildren.”
The 800m runner still has both parents and nine siblings in South Sudan, whom he hopes to inspire with the news of his ROT selection for the Olympic Games.
“Being a refugee is only a name,” he said. “And to come out in that situation to be called a refugee is only a human being like me who can change that name, you see. From that journey from Kakuma to this place, I call myself an ambassador for refugees.”
Lokoro’s story is similar to that of Pur Biel - now 24, he fled South Sudan 10 years ago for the Kakuma camp to escape the war, and was spotted during athletics trials organised by the Tegla Loroupe Foundation last year.
The ambitions of this 1500m runner are certainly undaunted: “My dream, I want to break the record of the world, I want to win the gold,” he said.
Lokonyen spent 13 years in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya having fled from soldiers in her home country. Her parents are still in South Sudan whilst her four siblings are living in the camp. She hopes that her inclusion in the ROT will inspire her family and refugees across the world. “My dream is when I went I just want to help my parents and siblings, then after that help also some of my fellow refugees as well.”
Lohalith, 21, fled her home country when she was just eight years old, leaving her family behind. Her talent, over 10 kilometres, was also spotted at Foundation athletics trials.
“In Olympics it will inspire the other refugees because wherever they are they are not just the other people, they are like all of us,” she said. “They might also get that encouragement that they can compete in some way because wherever they are they can be looked down on as a refugee but they might see they have that character and ability to be better at things all over the world wherever they are.”
The five runners at the Ngong training centre have been working under the direction of Volker Wagner, the German who coached Loroupe to her triumphs in London, Berlin and New York.
Speaking to insidethegames shortly before the soon-to-be famous five left for Rio, Wagner - who went back to Germany last week - described how a final period of preparation with the Kenyan Olympic team at Eldoret almost did for the prospects of the whole group.
“They joined the Kenyan squad training in Eldoret for almost two weeks and they have been running over the limits,” he said.
“It’s the first time they have met world class runners and they were so motivated they wanted to follow them. Our 1500m runner, Paul, was trying to keep up with Asbel Kiprop, and Yiech, who is doing the 800m, was following David Rudisha.
“They all tried to run too hard. It took four days to fix everything, but they are now fine. This is all good experience for them.
“Tegla asked me if I could help out on this project. For me it is a challenge because I look after a number of world-class runners. So I have been travelling back and forth between Kenya and Germany.
“We started with 27 people - we had to send 14 back to the Kakuma camp because they didn’t have the quality. It was hard, but we had to tell them they did not have a chance for Rio.
“Another 30 came, and now we have 26 people training regularly. Most of them come from South Sudan, although we have one from the Congo, and Somalia, and three from Ethiopia.
“When the people started training in October there were no runners. They were just starting to run when I came to the camp in November.
Yiech Pur Biel (right), Rose Nathike Lokonyen and their coach Joseph Domongole get the feel of Rio after arriving as part of the Refugee Olympic Team ©Getty Images
“It is hard to find people who are able to train hard, who can get their bodies to accept it. We had to make some changes and see who fitted into what event. Nobody had run competitively before.”
In the course of 10 months, however, the improvements for the most promising of the refugees - who speak some English and Swahili as well as their mother tongue - have been dramatic.
“Yiech was running the 800m in 2:08,” Wagner said. “Now we can give him a target of 1.52 or maybe better. That is a big improvement in only 10 months.
“Our 1500m runner, Paul, was running 4:25. Now he can run easily under 4min - 3:52, something like this. Our 1500m women’s runner, Anjelina, ran 5:15 in her first competition. She has now done 4:52 and she can do something like 4:40.
“Rose was running the 800m in 2:38 only six weeks ago, but now she has done 2:23 and I say she can run something like 2:16.
“If they can all stay healthy, I am very sure they will compete with honour after just 10 months’ training and bring no shame to the competition
“When they stated our training programme back in November they didn’t have hope that they would make it to Rio. But by the time they reached halfway in January, February they began to hope.
“I told them ‘don’t give up, continue to train and you can be sure you will make it.’
"Then they started to be eager to run and since then they have improved so much that we are all very pleased.
“When the five runners selected got the message that they were nominated - they were watching TV at the time - they were very, very happy.”
Wagner will not be going to Rio - instead they are sending his assistant coach Joseph Domongole. “Joseph has worked very hard to help me and to keep the runners on my training programme when I have to go back to Germany,” Wagner said. “He has earned his chance to go to Rio with the athletes.”
On the eve of their departure for Rio - and Wagner’s return to Germany - a special lunch was held at the camp for all involved in the project, including Loroupe.
“Two days ago they all went to town to do some shopping before coming back to the camp and preparing to leave,” said Wagner. “They cannot imagine what is coming in Rio so they are only excited.”
Shortly before leaving for Rio with the five South Sudan athletes, Loroupe told insidethegames: “I will be supporting the athletes in every way I can. I will be doing all I can to help them adapt to the scenario of an Olympic Games and I will stay with them in the Olympic Village because I have to be close to them. And of course they will also be supported by the International Olympic Committee.
“As an ex-athlete myself I hope I will be able to give them some advice about their competitions. But I will also be telling them how they can use their roles as refugees - what they can tell the world through their competition and how they can serve as an inspiration to others.
“This is the first time in history that this has happened. The five athletes who are now preparing in Kenya never had a chance to compete before. They have had to struggle. But when you hear about the progress they are making now it is incredible.
“Yiech Pur Biel - he is really good. For a long time he was in a camp and he was not able to do any sport. He has made a lot of improvement - it is incredible.
In ten months they have all made very huge improvements. I think there will be runners in Rio who do not have their quality. Maybe some can make finals.
“I talk to the runners in Nairobi in Swahili, and they have some English. The two judo players in Brazil also speak some Swahili because they came from the Congo.
“I have talked to the two preparing in Rio. It is a blessing that I am able to help these athletes and give them advice. I think it helps that I came from a very difficult situation too.”
Born in Kapsait village, the Lelan division of West Pokot District, Kenya, Loroupe - given the childhood nickname of Chametia, “the one who never gets annoyed” - grew up with 24 siblings. She spent her childhood working fields, tending cattle and looking after younger brothers and sisters.
“I always relate my story when I talk to them," she said. "I had no support when I started running. But you have to believe in yourself and do your best. You have to fight.
“I came from an area close to the Uganda border so I know what it means when people are being displaced. I lost family members because of conflicts. It was cattle rustling. In 2000 we lost all my cows - they were taken over the Uganda border.
“When I was growing up in this community I had no support at all. I had to struggle for a long time until I went to college and began running national races. Then I had problems with my national federation. They didn’t believe someone could come through from such circumstances. I had no coach. It was me and my legs. I had to overcome all the obstacles.
“But as I grew up sport gave me a way to escape. I was able to use the power of sport.
“Thanks to President Thomas Bach and the IOC for giving these athletes that chance as well.”
Wagner concluded: “Tegla and I, we want this project to continue for five more years at least. In the Tokyo Olympics in four years’ time, maybe we can have some experienced runners. By that time we can have special people who are able to run and who need to run well to qualify. This is our aim. We believe we can produce world class runners who are able to qualify for Tokyo 2020 by their own power.
“The thing I notice is how some of these runners exercise now. When we started the people had no idea how to do stretching for exercises and co-ordination - they are not runners, and they start moving their bodies in funny ways. But now when you see how they do exercises it is very different. You are impressed to see the faces - you see these people are fighters. These are now sportsmen and women - now this is something you see.”