Refugee athletes make waves in Budapest; ready to light the track on fire in Eugene

A year after the second appearance of the Refugee Olympic Team, refugee athletes are back in action at this summer’s major competitions. Their presence is part of a greater push for inclusion within international sports.

Swimming - FINA World Championships - Budapest, Hungary  - June 21, 2022 Hungary's Kristof Milak celebrates after winning the men's 200m butterfly final REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo
Swimming - FINA World Championships - Budapest, Hungary - June 21, 2022 Hungary's Kristof Milak celebrates after winning the men's 200m butterfly final REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

The 19th FINA World Championships got underway in Budapest, Hungary this week, with names like Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel, David Popovici, and Thomas Ceccon headlining the opening days of competition. However, away from the high strata of the podium and media limelight rests another group of swimmers ready to make their mark on Budapest, the FINA Refugee Team.

Yusra Mardini, Alaa Maso, and Mohamad Eyad Masoud make up the small squad of refugee athletes in Budapest. All three were left stateless as a result of the Syrian Civil War. However, swimming has brought them under the same banner in the Hungarian capital.

Mardini is an experienced veteran of the Refugee Team. She dove into the pool at the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games. She also competed at the previous two world championships held by FINA.

Maso will add to his resume, which includes an appearance at Tokyo 2020, while Masoud will make his debut for the Refugee Team at a major competition. Both Maso and Masoud have been identified by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as potential candidates for the Paris 2024 Refugee Olympic Team.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. Yusra Mardini of the Refugee Olympic Team and Tachlowini Gabriyesos of the Refugee Olympic Team lead their contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony REUTERS/Mike Blake
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021. Yusra Mardini of the Refugee Olympic Team and Tachlowini Gabriyesos of the Refugee Olympic Team lead their contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony REUTERS/Mike Blake

Despite finishing well behind the favorites in his first event, Masoud displayed a joyous attitude on Instagram, writing, “made it to Budapest, made it to the diving blocks and made a big progress for my swimming career…I’m happy, excited and humbled.”

Mardini, meanwhile, was hoping to hold back tears as she prepared for her final competition with the Refugee Team before gaining German citizenship. She told Olympics.com, “hopefully I won’t cry because being with the Refugee Olympic team has been a huge part of my life. It just changed my life forever.”

“I feel like I’ve lived two lives: there were the first 17 years of my life, then the last five as a refugee. Sometimes I feel like I’m 50 years old because of everything that’s happened.”

She used her tenure at the Refugee Team to raise awareness about the plight of refugees, and to share her own personal story and experience. She was made a Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations Refugee Agency in 2017. She’s also a published author, with a film on the way according to Olympics.com.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Swimming - Women's 100m Butterfly - Heats - Tokyo Aquatics Centre - Tokyo, Japan - July 24, 2021. Yusra Mardini of the Refugee Olympic Team in action REUTERS/Marko Djurica
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Swimming - Women's 100m Butterfly - Heats - Tokyo Aquatics Centre - Tokyo, Japan - July 24, 2021. Yusra Mardini of the Refugee Olympic Team in action REUTERS/Marko Djurica

Mardini will take to the pool for her last events on June 23 and 24. She has confirmed that she will continue to swim, but stated, “I don’t know when.”

Taking to the blocks in Eugene

A second group of refugee athletes will take to the track in Eugene, Oregon next month for the World Athletics Championships. The team will be headlined by olympians Tachlowini Gabriyesos, Dorian Keletela, Jamal Abdalmajid Eisa-Mohammed, and Anjelina Nadai Lohalith.

They will be joined by Fouad Idbafdil, who ran at the last world championships, and by newcomer, Atalena Napule Gaspore. The team originates from five different countries, but will run under one unified banner in Eugene.

Gabriyesos told World Athletics, “it makes me so proud to once again wear the Athlete Refugee Team vest at the World Championships.”

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Men's Marathon - Sapporo Odori Park, Sapporo, Japan - August 8, 2021. Tachlowini Gabriyesos of the Refugee Olympic Team reacts after competing REUTERS/Feline Lim
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Athletics - Men's Marathon - Sapporo Odori Park, Sapporo, Japan - August 8, 2021. Tachlowini Gabriyesos of the Refugee Olympic Team reacts after competing REUTERS/Feline Lim

“I don’t represent a country, but millions of people without one,” he noted. “I want to be a role model for refugee youth around the world and wish to show the world once again that refugees can be strong, that we are hungry for success and that we deserve equal opportunities.”

Gabriyesos was co-flagbearer for the Refugee Olympic Team at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, where he finished a noteworthy 16th place in the men’s marathon. Refugee athletes have yet to find the podium at the World Athletics Championships, a statistic Gabriyesos and his compatriots will surely look to change.

Regardless of their medal hopes in Eugene, the team has already achieved something special according to World Athletics President Sebastian Coe.

Commenting on the team’s announcement as part of World Refugee Day, the head of World Athletics stated, “our Athlete Refugee Team brings a powerful and inspirational message of hope and solidarity to the world, at a time when it’s truly needed.”

Athletics - Diamond League - Zurich - Sechselaeutenplatz square, Zurich, Switzerland - September 8, 2021 World athletics president Sebastian Coe REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Athletics - Diamond League - Zurich - Sechselaeutenplatz square, Zurich, Switzerland - September 8, 2021 World athletics president Sebastian Coe REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

He defended their place at the World Athletics Championships, stating, “they’re also showing, through their rapid development and world class performances, that they do belong among the world’s best athletes.”

World Athletics also noted the growth of their World Athletics Athlete Refugee Team. The delegation traveling to Eugene may appear small at six members, but it is only an elite sample of the larger team, which now includes more than 40 athletes according to the World Athletics.

The presence of refugee athletes at these two major competitions is in line with the IOC’s continued push for inclusion and integration of refugee athletes at major competitions and the Olympic Games.

IOC President and Chair of the Olympic Refuge Foundation (ORF) Thomas Bach spoke on the importance of sport earlier this month, stating, in these difficult times, we need the mission of sport to promote peace and solidarity more than ever.”

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach attends the final day of the 139th IOC Session at Olympic House in Lausanne, Switzerland, May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach attends the final day of the 139th IOC Session at Olympic House in Lausanne, Switzerland, May 20, 2022. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

He continued, “Our UNHCR partners have told us many times that whenever they ask refugees what they need most after food and shelter, the answer is almost always sport.”

“That is because sport is about so much more than physical activity. Sport is empowerment. Sport is inclusion. Sport is respect. Sport is health. Sport is building confidence. Sport is a positive mindset. This is what the mission of the ORF is all about – giving hope through sport to those uprooted by conflict, persecution or disaster.”

The IOC has already confirmed plans for a Refugee Olympic Team at the Paris 2024 Summer Olympic Games and the Dakar 2026 Summer Youth Olympic Games. Good results at this summer’s major competitions could aid athletes in booking a spot on the team for Paris 2024.