Earlier this week in Lausanne, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach announced the names of the 29 athletes who will compete in Tokyo on the Refugee Olympic Team.

They were chosen from a shortlist of Refugee Athlete Scholarship holders, who have all trained with backing by the IOC's own Olympic Solidarity fund.

During the Games, they will be officially known by the French name "Équipe Olympique des Réfugiés", abbreviated to EOR, and enter the stadium immediately after the Greek team at the Opening Ceremony.

The team is almost three times larger than that which competed in Rio de Janeiro.

"Unfortunately the reasons why we created this team still persist," Bach said an an online announcement ceremony.

"We have even more forcibly displaced persons in the world right now."

In the 125 years since the first modern Olympic Games took place, the refugee problem has cast a long shadow.

In the aftermath of the First World War and Russian Revolution, many sought refuge. Russian IOC member Prince Leon Ouroussoff had relocated to Paris and asked for recognition of an organisation that would allow Russian émigrés to participate in the 1924 Olympics and other sporting events.

The IOC Session minutes for Rome 1923 record, "in the present state of affairs the Olympic rules prevent Russian participation in the Games".

Then in 1936, a "Fédération Sportive Russe", unconnected with Joseph Stalin's Soviet regime, made further representations during the IOC Session in Berlin.

"The Committee regrets that in spite of the sympathy which it feels for these unfortunate expatriated persons, it cannot permit their participation in the Olympic Games."

After the second world war, many from Eastern Europe fled the Soviet bloc. There followed an ideological battle between East and West in which sport played its part.

Count Antal Szápáry founded a Hungarian National Sports Federation and told Avery Brundage, then an IOC vice-president that: "Those sportsmen in exile are led by the true spirit of fair play, whilst Bolshevism takes sport for nothing but as a means of propaganda."

A "Union of Free Eastern European Sportsmen" (UFEES) with headquarters in New York was led by Szápáry. This was supported by former Latvian IOC member Jānis Dikmanis.

It aimed "to represent as a common body, the interests of the exiled sporting youth."

At the IOC session in Oslo shortly before the 1952 Winter Olympics, President Sigfrid Edström told members "that there exists in our times, a large number of refugees or athletes in exile, amongst them are to be found some former Olympic champions. They have come together and are now asking to be allowed to take part in the Games. The President wonders how this problem can be solved and commends it to the members."

Then Thomas de Márffy-Mantuano, a Hungarian living in London, spoke on the organisation’s behalf at the 1952 IOC session in Helsinki.

"He refers to the plight the athletes without national status and their children are in, when desirous to participate in the Games. He appeals for the IOC's good-will, trusting that it will find a solution."

It was suggested they might enter and compete "under the colours of the International Red Cross or under the five Olympic rings."

He asked the IOC to consider the question "with leniency".

President Edström later reported that the Executive Committee "has gone thoroughly into this problem and that it has failed to find a solution which could permit the IOC to admit the refugee athletes to the Games."

When the IOC response was sent, Lord Aberdare insisted they "convey deepest sympathy with the refugees and exiles."

What was not clear until much later was the extent to which the lobby group was connected to the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The details were revealed in an extensive study by Toby Rider, a professor at California State University in Fullerton. It is thought that the IOC was unaware of the links.

Pressure groups continued lobbying.

Then in 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the Hungarian uprising.

Olympic chancellor Otto Mayer took action, helping athletes escape the city to participate at the Melbourne Olympics.

The Olympic Review records how Mayer "had succeeded in getting the Hungarian team from Budapest to Prague, the first modern Olympic truce. He subsequently helped it obtain plane accommodations to Melbourne."

Mayer wrote later: "A dark cloud hovered over the Stadium. Athletes from Hungary were present despite the 'civil war' which was tearing their country apart. They left their country in tragic circumstances."

Many became refugees after competing in Melbourne. Amongst them was gymnast Ágnes Keleti who later settled in Israel.

Uganda’s first Olympic champion John Akii-Bua later languished in a refugee camp after turmoil engulfed his country. He had won 400 metres hurdles gold in 1972 and did return to compete at Moscow 1980, but the privations he experienced exacted a toll.

In the early 1990s, war erupted in Yugoslavia. The United Nations (UN) imposed sanctions and the Yugoslav football team was expelled from the final stages of Euro 92.

The official Olympic Review noted that "IOC could not accept a decision of this kind and, in the teeth of considerable difficulties and by dint of direct negotiations with the United Nations Security Council sanctions committee, it prevailed upon the latter to revise its point of view to allow, after all, the participation of individual athletes."

This allowed those from Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia to compete as Independent Olympic Participants (IOP) at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

The Bosnian capital Sarajevo was under siege and citizens faced the danger of sniper bullets. In Olympic terms they were also "stateless" until their National Olympic Committee (NOC) was granted 11th-hour recognition.

For IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, Sarajevo held a strong emotional connection as the 1984 Winter Olympics had been his first as President. The acceptance of athletes from the former Yugoslavia paved the way for future initiatives.

In 2000, competitors from East Timor were invited to the Sydney Olympics, even though they did not yet have an NOC. They marched behind a banner as "Individual Olympic Athletes".

Recognition of Timor-Leste came before Athens 2004.

By 2015, the UN Refugee Agency calculated that 65 million had been forced to leave their homes as a result of conflict and other disasters.

That summer, the IOC established a "Refugee Emergency Fund" of $2 million (£1.4 million/€1.6 million) to help NOCs integrate refugees in sporting programmes.

"We realised the world wide refugee crisis and then we saw these images and said there must be athletes among these people," said Bach.

He admitted there had been no prior consultation with other international agencies before his proposal was made at the UN.

"I am happy to announce to this UN General Assembly that the International Olympic Committee will invite the highest-qualified refugee athletes to participate in the Olympic Games Rio de Janeiro 2016," Bach declared. "These refugees have no home, they have no team, they have no national anthem. We are offering them a home in the Olympic Village together with all the other athletes of the world."

The IOC then began its search for those "with refugee status and sufficient talent to compete at an Olympic level."

The Rio 2016 Olympic Flame visited the Eleonas camp in Athens where swimmer Ibrahim Al Hussein from Syria carried the Torch "on behalf of every refugee who has had difficulties".

The first refugee team of 10 included judoka Yolande Bukasa Mabika and Popole Misenga, both originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had been hosted Brazil.

Swimmer Yusra Mardini, originally from Syria said: "We didn’t choose to leave our homelands. We didn’t choose the name of refugees… We promise again that we are going to do what it takes to inspire everyone."

Rose Nathike Lokonyen, a runner from South Sudan, carried the Olympic flag as they walked into the Maracanã.

"When the athletes entered the stadium in Rio, the whole world stood up," Chef de Mission Tegla Loroupe said.

Loroupe, a long-distance runner who experienced tribal violence growing up in Kenya, will perform the same role for the Tokyo 2020 team.

The team meets in Qatar next month before travelling to Japan.

"They will not represent only themselves but also the entire refugees world wide. As a former athlete, I believe I will be able to help the athletes from across the five continents of the world, to share my experience from a conflict area myself."

Mardini, Lokonyen and Misenga are among six athletes from Rio 2016 chosen again.

At the virtual IOC Session held in March, it also became clear that a refugee team is likely to be included at the 2026 Youth Olympic Games in Senegal.

"Hope needs to start at the Youth Games and not at the main Games," William Blick, an IOC member from Uganda, said.

The IOC had also given the green light to an Olympic Refuge Foundation, established in 2017 to "create safe, basic and accessible sports facilities in areas where there are refugees."

The project is funded by what the IOC describes as "generous donations from Olympic Movement partners, governmental institutions and private donations. Financial support has already been received from the Qatar Olympic Committee and the Government of Liechtenstein."

Source: https://www.insidethegames.biz