Tonight, the 2016 Rio Olympic Summer Games get their official kickoff. Even though a few events got a head start (mostly in women's and men's football, where both Canada and the USA's ladies notched important 2-0 victories), the true moment of liftoff is the Opening Ceremony. There will be music, dancing, performance, fireworks, and glitz. The main torch will be lit and burn constantly until the Closing Ceremony on August 21st. And the full teams of all 206 nations — 11,000 athletes in all — will parade into Maracanã Stadium to be saluted by the crowd.
The parade is a long one. Depending on where you live, or where your family has roots, you may be only really interested in seeing one or two teams march out. But right near the end, just before the hosts Brazil who will close the parade, is a small team with a big story.
In between nations, but on the stage
It's the Refugee Olympic Team, or ROT. (All nations have a unique three letter code that their name is officially shortened to.) But there is nothing rotten about this group. Instead, these 10 athletes come together to form perhaps the most inspiring team in Rio. All of them are refugees. People of great talent who belong to no nation. They have bravely escaped war, oppression, and poverty. And now, they're on the biggest stage in the world.
This is the first Olympics where there has been a Refugee team. In the past, however, there have been so-called Independent athletes at the Games who participated under the Olympic flag. Usually, these were athletes from countries that were undergoing big political changes back home. But this is the first time that in the naming and selection of the team that the Olympics are making a conscious effort to highlight the plight of refugees. Eight of the team's members come originally from three African nations that have struggled with human rights issues and conflict: South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ethiopia. The other two come from Syria, a nation whose devastating civil war has sent tens of thousands of refugees into Europe and North America.
A reason to believe in the Games
All Olympic Games have had their share of controversy and issues going into them. Still, these Rio Games have had more than most. Concerns over the quality of venue construction, corruption in the country's government, and water pollution where events are being held have been well-publicized. In short, there are a lot of people who have had bad things to say about Rio. But it's easy to forget just how much every athlete sacrifices to participate in the Olympics. Especially for athletes outside popular sports like football, basketball, and tennis, this one event is something they spend four years preparing for. You could randomly pick pretty much any of the 11,000 athletes and be inspired by what they've given to pursue a dream.
But the Refugee Olympic Team is a whole other level of sacrifice. 18 year-old Yusra Mardini fled Syria by swimming for three-and-a-half hours in open water to stabilize a tiny boat of 20 fellow refugees. Now she's swimming in the 200m freestyle event. James Chiengjiek escaped South Sudan at 13 to avoid becoming a child soldier. Now he'll be running the 400m. The stories of the other eight are just as inspiring. So keep an eye out for them, both tonight during the parade and throughout the next two weeks. Whatever odds they will battle to win a medal, they are nothing compared to the odds that they've already overcome to just be here.
The Refugee Olympic Team (ROT)
- Rami Anis (Syria) Swimming 100m Butterfly
- Yiech Biel (South Sudan) Athletics 800m
- James Chiengjiek (South Sudan) Athletics 400m
- Yonas Kinde (Ethiopia) Athletics Marathon
- Anjelina Lohalith (South Sudan) Athletics 1500m
- Rose Lokonyen (South Sudan) Athletics 800m
- Paulo Lokoro (South Sudan) Athletics 1500m
- Yolande Mabika (Democratic Republic of Congo) Judo 70kg
- Yusra Mardini (Syria) Swimming 200m Freestyle
- Popole Misenga (Democratic Republic of Congo) Judo 90kg