The Olympic Refugee Team – Why we Lost Interest

The International Olympic Committee’s decision to permit a team of  ten athletes under the Olympic Flag should have cast the global refugee crisis into the limelight once again as Olympics coverage dominated the news and sporting agenda during August as these individuals represented the 60 million registered refugees worldwide. However, once the initial interest in Yusra Mardini the Syrian hundred-metre butterfly swimmer faded out, mention of refugees seemed to be erased from the Olympic lexicon as well as those of commentators and the writers of reflective pieces provided in print, broadcast and social media formats. Sadly, little will change during the Paralympics with the refugee team only numbering two and the Games mired in a series of rows concerning finance and the classification of athletes which may well cast questions over the fairness of some of the competition.

Sport as a tool for easing the plight of refugees in difficult environments is not new, witness, the popularity of table football in the camps in Calais and the surrounding area, whilst the contribution of refugees to the make up of sports teams, notably some of the competing nations at the 2016 European Football Championships was significant.

In the case of Britain even the unfurling of flags and banners in football stadia compared to mainland Europe was very slow to catch on during the time of the greeted influx of refugees in late 2015, a manifestation of the sense of distance and disinterest many feel towards the plight of peoples seemingly unconnected to these Isles. However, closer to home, as the situation around Calais noticeably worsens (well before the advent of winter) compassion fatigue appears evident with a funding crisis looming, whilst the up coming French presidential election is likely to feature politicians using refugee issue as a device to brandish concerns about security rather than human dignity and duty of care.

Although there is a recognition of the growing contribution of sport in the promotion of peace, tolerance and respect in addition to its value in promoting the  empowerment of women and young people, the Olympic movement has overlooked the capacity of how a sporting mega- events can arouse interest, concern and desire to promote change. Sadly it has failed to fully appreciate this reality and once more has spurned the opportunity to understand that contemporary sport exists within a political setting and has to be viewed and understood in this way if it is ever to be fully utilised to the benefit of all in society.