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Team refugees: against all odds

16.08.2016 – Ten refugees who made history as members of the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team have started competing at Rio2016. The team includes two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a marathoner from Ethiopia and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan.

Congolese refugees in Rio cheer for Yolande and Popole as they compete the Olympics.  
Photo: UNHCR/Miguel Pachioni

Wednesday 10 August marked a day of high drama at the Olympic Games in Rio. Yolande Mabika bowed out after a tough tussle in the first judo bout of the day, but vowed to keep fighting for refugees. Then, Popole Misenga, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, won his first bout and made history by becoming the first member of the first-ever refugee team (#teamrefugees) to progress to the next round. His performance triggered wild celebrations, especially among friends at a downtown Congolese community centre where his exploits were followed on a giant television screen.

Even though Popole lost his second match against Korean Gawk, he was supported by the crown as a local hero.
Photo: UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Popole, 24, beat India’s Avtar Singh to make it into the round of 16 in the men’s 90 kg judo competition. 

He told journalists later: “When I entered into the competition room, I thought that nobody would cheer me. Then I saw that the whole Brazil was supporting me. I got emotional. I felt something coming from inside: I need to win that first fight. And I won.”

Yusra Mardini plunges into Olympic pool.  
Photo: UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Across the road at the pool, Yusra Mardini's Olympic odyssey finally came to an end when she was beaten in the Women's 100 m freestyle. The story of her flight to safety has touched hearts around the world, and she says she has no intention of giving up. 

"I want to continue swimming and I want to continue supporting refugees”, said Yusra after her race. 

When Yusra competed in the Women's 100m freestyle event she swam in the same water as her hero Michael Phelps. While she did not win, she proved to the world that sports have no borders and that refugees can compete on the world stage.

Rami Anis plunges into the Olympic pool at the Rio2016 Games in the 100-metre freestyle on Tuesday.  
Photo: UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Rami Anis has just swum again. "The race was very good, but I didn't improve on my time, maybe because of pressure, because it's my first time at the Olympics. I am not happy with my result but I hope to do better in the future," he told UNHCR. "Representing the refugee team is an honour to me. I am proud to be representing refugees and all those oppressed. I take great pride in that."

Yiech Pur Biel congratulated by his Kenyan friend Alfred Kipketer who also failed to qualify in the Men’s 800 m.
Photo: UNCHR/Benjamin Loyseau

Friday was a full day of track and field and #teamrefugees got off to a flying start.

Yiech Pur Biel came out strongly in his 800 m heat, but faded towards the end. However, he fullfilled a dream and took a huge step forward on his long journey from darkness in war-wracked South Sudan; he ran in the Olympics and did not come last. "I only had eight months training, I know I can go much further now... I have overcome so many challenges, and this has opened my eyes," he said afterwards.

Anjelina competing in the Women’s 1500 m at Rio Olympics. 
Photo: UNCHR/Benjamin Loyseau

Next up was Anjelina Lohalith in the Women's 1,500 m and James Nyang Chiengjiek in the Men's 800 m.

James Nyang Chiengjiek kicks off at the start of the 400m race. 
Photo: UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

Despite not winning, James said, “It is a very good moment for all refugees worldwide, not only for me. Although we did not manage to get great results that is part of life. It was very important to be here today, competing”.


Sport has proven to be a cost-effective and flexible tool in promoting peace and development objectives. Since the inception of the MDGs in 2000, it has played a vital role in enhancing each of the eight goals, a fact which has been recognised in numerous Resolutions of the General Assembly. Its role in social progress is further recognised in the Declaration of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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