To understand what the new Refugee Olympic Team has achieved at the Rio Games, it’s helpful to look beyond the Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini winningher 100-meter butterfly heat, or her teammate Rami Anis setting a personal best in the 100-meter freestyle, and consider Olympic history: For 120 years, withsome exceptions, the Games have been organized by country. Athletes parade into the Opening Ceremony behind a national flag, compete for the greater glory of a national team, and receive medals to the tune of a national anthem.
Refugees, by their very presence, challenge the nationalistic ethos of the Games. They have been stripped of their nation, their flag, and their anthem. They have existed in one form or another throughout the 120-year history of the Olympics. But until this year, they’ve fallen through the cracks of the world recognized by the organizers of the Games.
Now those cracks are too wide to ignore. The Rio Olympics are occurring amid the worst refugee crisis since World War II, when the concept of a “refugee” was first enshrined in international law. In creating a Refugee Olympic Team that would be “treated … like all the other [national] teams,” in having those athletes march into the Opening Ceremony right ahead of host country Brazil, in endowing that team with the Olympic flag and anthem, the International Olympic Committee has powerfully recognized the liminal existence of refugees in a world that is more than just a collection of nations.