Road To The Olympic Games

Rio Olympic 2016·In Depth

Olympic refugee team resonates with immigrants in Canada

Sports-loving newcomers to Canada will be keeping a close eye on the 10 athletes competing in Rio for the first-ever refugee Olympic team.

10 athletes competing in Rio for 1st-ever Olympic refugee team

South Sudanese refugee athletes Anjelina Nada Lohalith, left, and James Nyang Chiengjiek, second from right, took time to pose with two young fans in Rio prior to the Olympics. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

By Jamie Strashin, CBC Sports

Mandela Kuet knows the power of sports. He has lived and witnessed it first-hand.

Kuet was 12 when his family escaped war-ravaged Sudan and came to Winnipeg in 1998. He says it was sports that made him feel welcome in Canada.

"That was one of the best things that helped me integrate. It helped me make friends," Kuet recalls. "It taught me a lot about discipline, playing on a team, learning the language. It was a great experience."

Kuet never forgot. Today he works for the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba (IRCOM), where he has coached basketball for the past three years. He has watched countless refugees thrive in Canada with the help of sports.

Kuet's deep connection to refugees and sports will have him focused on Rio over the next few weeks.

Different kind of team

Since the modern Olympics began in 1896, more than 200 countries have sent athletes to compete for medals at the Summer and Winter Games. In Rio, there will be a different kind of team.

Last month, the International Olympic Committee announced the selection of the first-ever refugee Olympic squad. The 10 athletes — six men and four women — hail from war-torn countries like Syria, Congo and South Sudan. They'll compete in track and field, swimming and judo, and will march at the opening ceremony and compete under the Olympic flag.

It's a feel-good story these beleaguered Games so desperately needs.

"This is an achievement in terms of people being recognized for their ability to be resilient and to make a difference," Kuet says. "To be able to show your talent and represent your community or country, it shines the spotlight on a lot of things people don't know about. They are agents of change, they can unite communities."

Kuet says he will be paying special attention to Anjelina Nada Lohalith, who will run for South Sudan in the women's 1,500 metres.

"She's the first woman to be able to do that. To us it's a huge positive light on the country, on the biggest stage," Kuet explains. "People see all of these horrible things about South Sudan and then you have another platform where [the country is] being represented in a positive light. It brings a lot of pride to the community."

'We always have to fight'

Gololcha Boru will also be watching. He coaches IRCOM's soccer team, which is made up mostly of recent refugees from sub-Saharan Africa.

It's the kind of team that didn't exist when his family came to Canada from Kenya in the early 1990s.

Boru says his team has taken an interest in the first-ever Olympic refugee team.

"It's going to really humanize what people think refugees are," Boru says. "People think we are broken and weak, but the real fact is we been through a lot. Once we leave our homes, come to a new country, we always have to fight."

Boru says it's not just the refugee team that piqued his interest in the upcoming Games.  

"Within the Canadian team there are many who come from a refugee background. If not them, their parents," he says. "When we see people who look like us, especially wearing the Canadian flag, it really gives us some kind of goal that we can be that one day."

Dire circumstances

In Canada, the dream is increasingly more likely.

Robert Schinke is the Canada research chair in multicultural sport and physical activity at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont.

Schinke points to a study he just completed on elite athletes in Canada.

"I interviewed 25 athletes in various sports from boxing to judo to gymnastics, and more than half were refugee athletes," Schinke says. "They came under dire circumstance in their childhood or as adolescents, relocated, entered the sports system and then developed here in Canada."

Schinke says not all refugee stories have happy endings. Some never have an opportunity to compete, making this refugee Olympic team invaluable.

"I can envision it growing. I think the countries might vary depending on the political climate of the times," Schnike says. "You will always have refugee athletes and I think these athletes need the opportunity to perform and achieve their potential on the world stage."

Schnike will be in Rio as one of the coaches for the Canadian boxing team. But he will be monitoring the refugee team closely.

So too will Kuet and Boru, who say they feel an indirect connection to these 10 athletes, pressed together by strife and circumstance.

"They are there. They have made it," Kuet says. "That, to me, is an accomplishment."


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