Refugee crisis leaves mark on Rio Olympics

My mixed feelings post-Rio left me searching for hope. Is the Olympic movement doing anything right? Is there hope for the social aims of the Games?

We all bought into the pre-games criticism. Fears of Zika, political meltdowns, social oppression and security issues kept too many of us away from Brazil. These same fears also kept visiting Olympic fans away from local Brazilian culture and firmly within the heavily guarded Olympic bubble. I entered these games with more hesitation, critical feelings and fear than I had ever experienced.

In spite of the negative pre-Games narrative, the Rio Olympics were a successful sports spectacle. The athletes – as always – made the games a success. I was amazed by sprinters Usain Bolt and Andre De Grasse. Swimmers Penny Oleksiak and Michael Phelps ripped up the pool. Brazil won men’s soccer.

But I kept wondering, can the Olympic movement achieve something more than a sporting spectacle? My answer came from an unexpected place. It came from last place.

Refugee runner

At the Games, I watched James Chiengjiek finish last in his 400-metre heat. He wasn’t behind by a little bit. He was way back. I wondered how that made him feel.

Chiengjiek (pronounced: Cheng’GEE’yick) was part of the first-ever Olympic refugee team. After his father was killed in the South Sudan war, he ran from his homeland to avoid being a child soldier.

I was drawn to Chiengjiek’s story because my grandfather was also a refugee athlete. He was an Estonian shot putter living in Sweden who was unable to compete in London 1948. The Soviets had taken his country, and the Swedes would not give him citizenship. Like Chiengjiek, my grandfather was a man without a country.

After his race, Chiengjiek sighed. He looked into the stands. To my eyes, he looked both amazed and confused. I wondered what he thought, but I didn’t have the necessary accreditation to speak with Chiengjiek.

As he walked closer to the stands, I was moved by the moment. I climbed up the black railing that blocked me from the athletes. I leaned over and reached out to shake Chiengjiek’s hand. His dark eyes looked at my blonde, balding face. He then gave me a soft and pensive handshake – if handshakes can be like that. I told him that I watched his race, and that I was proud of him.

Chiengjiek looked a bit overwhelmed. He was certainly out of place. But he came back with some words that touched my heart. Chiengjiek said that he was honoured to be here at the games, and to bring attention to the plight of refugees worldwide. Regardless of his result, I believe he was happy to compete. He was honoured to be an ambassador.

How much impact will Chiengjiek’s race have on the world? I don’t know. His participation in the games is not the only answer to the refugee crisis, but it feels right. Athletes like Chiengjiek remind us of why sport matters. With more sport, I believe there will be less war and fewer refugees.

The moral equivalent of war

I refer to the late psychologist William James and his essay, “The Moral Equivalent of War.” He observed that both sport and warfare lift life to “a higher plane of power.” Both enable the expression of higher human qualities, which often lie dormant in ordinary life.

Discipline, courage, perseverance and self-sacrifice are all evident. Warfare creates a powerful sense of community, in the face of a collective threat. It binds people together and creates a sense of cohesion. So does sport. We need more sport and less war.
Those who encourage violence and war will work hard to discourage sport. Just last month, ISIS Warlords beheaded four Syrian soccer players in the town of Raqqa. The extremists have banned all organized sport, and in a twisted turn of events, crowds came to the athletes’ former soccer stadium to watch their beheadings.

Psychological effects

This is why a war story makes the sports section, and this is why refugees are now supported to compete at the Olympic Games: Sport is better than war. Sport satisfies most of the same psychological needs as warfare, and has similar psychological and social effects.

In Colombia and Brazil, for example, the promotion of soccer in areas of high gang activity has led to a significant reduction in crime and violence. The Human Security Report Project in 2006 has reported a steady decline in deaths from group conflicts over the last 75 years. Over the same time period, sport participation has increased significantly.

And to think, instead of being recruited to be a child soldier, Cheingjiek was recruited to be a runner. That’s a sport story that deserves more clicks than killer mosquitos. That’s a sports story I want to read again.

Chiengjiek’s Message

To honor Chiengjiek’s courage, I’m sharing some stats from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees:

  • Every day 34,000 people are forcibly displaced from their homes
  • We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record
  • Our world has 21.3 million refugees – more than half are aged 18 or younger
  • 10 million people are stateless and have been denied access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement