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The International Olympic Committee's Search for Refugee Athletes

Athletes competing for no country are not new to the Games, but a concentrated effort to recruit more of them could bring exciting new competition next year

The International Olympic Committee's Search for Refugee Athletes

Independent Olympic Athletes at the 2012 Summer Olympics. New initiatives will work with organizations to seek out top athletes who are refugees. Photo: AP

On Monday, the International Olympic Committee announced that top refugee athletes with no home country to represent can compete at the 2016 Rio Games under the Olympic flag. The statement drew attention to refugee crises across the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. But it also left us with one big question: How many potential Olympian refugees are there? 

“It would be premature to speculate on the number of athletes who will take part in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro,” the IOC wrote Outside in an email. “With the help of National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Olympic Committee has already identified a number of athletes who are living in refugee camps and is helping them through its Olympic Solidarity programmes.”

Simply put, the Olympic Solidarity program offers NOCs financial and administrative assistance to help develop their individual Olympic programs and get their athletes to the Games. About seven weeks ago, the IOC announced it had created a $2 million fund immediately available to NOCs for refugee programs. One million came from the IOC, the other million from Olympic Solidarity. 

Five countries have already received a combined total of $500,000 for refugee-centered projects, including Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, and Slovenia. The programs are designed to improve refugees’ quality of life and integrate them into their new communities through sport. The Danish NOC, for example, started a project called “get2sport for all,” in which local sports clubs work with refugee housing centers to integrate refugees into local sports activities. UNHCR estimates more than 17,000 refugees are currently in Denmark. 

“We are hopeful, however, that this initiative will bring hope to the refugee athletes who long to go back to training and compete at the Olympic Games,” the IOC wrote to Outside

One of these athletes has already competed at the Olympics under the Olympic flag. South Sudanese marathoner Guor Marial had been living as a refugee in the U.S. for 10 years when he ran in the London Olympics as one of four stateless, independent participants. (The three others, from the former Netherlands Antilles, competed independently when the IOC withdrew their Olympic Committee’s membership after the country was dissolved in 2010.)

Guor, it’s important to note, ran track and field in high school in New Hampshire, and at Iowa State University where he became an All-American athlete. So in a way, the IOC’s recent announcements are really efforts to give the more than 700,000 refugees who’ve reached Europe this year opportunities similar to Guor’s. That is, help integrating into their new communities, and receive the same opportunities to be identified and developed as a potential Olympian by their new countries’ NOCs.

“We also encourage refugee athletes who are now in Europe to contact the NOCs of the country that has welcomed them,” the IOC wrote Outside. The IOC also hopes that Monday’s announcement “will be a symbol of hope for all refugees around the world, and will make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis."

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