For 120 years, athletes have been competing for their countries at the Olympic Games. It's a simple system that has stood the test of time. But it has one big disadvantage -- it excludes those athletes who are refugees and thus have no country.

That's about to change. Teams in Rio de Janeiro this August will include the ten-strong Refugee Olympic Athletes team.

With over 60 million people currently forced to flee their home as a result of conflict and persecution, the team is a powerful reminder of the resilience, dedication and skill of refugees.

“Their participation in the Olympics is a tribute to the courage and perseverance of all refugees in overcoming adversity and building a better future for themselves and their families,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “UNHCR stands with them and with all refugees.”

 The Refugee Olympic Athletes team
The Refugee Olympic Athletes team
Image: UNHCR

Meet the team

There are five middle-distance runners from South Sudan, two Syrian swimmers, an Ethiopian marathon runner, and two judo players from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

All have astonishing stories of courage to share. Each of them a remarkable beacon of hope for refugees, people still living and suffering in the countries they’ve fled and sports fans around the world.

Take Yusra Mardini, an 18 year-old Syrian swimmer, who alongside her sister, jumped into the water to push their sinking vessel towards the Greek coast. Or Rose Nathike Lokonyen an 800m runner from South Sudan, who had never run a competitive race until this time last year.

Then there’s 21 year-old Anjelina Nadai Lohalith who hasn’t seen or spoken to her parents since she left South Sudan as a six year old. And Popole Misenga, a judo practitioner originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whose coach would lock him in a cage if he lost.

You can read all the athletes’ stories, and watch short video biographies here.

Why a refugee team?

The last 20 years has seen the global number of forcibly displaced people rise by well over a third, to reach 65.3m last year. This includes just over 20m refugees.

 Trend of global displacement and proportion displaced 1996-2015
Image: UNHCR

As this chart shows, since 2012 there has been a dramatic increase. As of June 2016, 33,972 people were being forced to feel their homes every day.

“We are in a period unlike any other that I have known,” said International Organization for Migration Director General William Lacy Swing in November last year. “Unprecedented numbers of people on the move, unprecedented forced migration and increasing anti-migrant sentiment in policy.”

The athletes highlight the significance of the formation of the Olympic team.

“I can show to my fellow refugees that they have a chance and a hope in life. Through education, but also in running, you can change the world,” explained Yiech Pur Biel, an 800 metre runner who fled South Sudan 11 years ago.

These sentiments were echoed by all 10 team members; they are doing this not only for themselves, and their families, but also for their homeland and refugees across the globe.

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