Editor’s Note: Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, is the author of “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete.” Former supervisor of NBC’s Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. Follow her on Twitter @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
IOC practices have been slammed, but it created refugee team, Amy Bass says
Bass: IOC has made key political decisions, including ban on South Africa in apartheid era
When 23-year-old Rose Nathike Lokonyen, an 800-meter runner from South Sudan, walks into Maracana Stadium on Friday night holding the Olympic flag, she and her nine teammates – five other runners, two swimmers and two judokas – will have found a home for the first time in a long time. These athletes are a team of refugees assembled by the International Olympic Committee – from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Ethiopia – competing for the first time at the Olympic Games, calling the athletes’ village “home” for a fortnight.
South Sudanese runner Anjelina Lohalith fled her burning village in 2002 in the middle of the night. James Chiengjiek is hoping the Olympic platform will help him find his family, whom he hasn’t seen in years. Yiech Pur Biel hopes that competing in Rio under the Olympic flag will help alert the world to the problems in South Sudan.
For 18-year-old Syrian Yusra Mardini, swimming has been a lifesaver. When the motor on a dinghy failed while they were crossing the Mediterranean to Greece, she and her sister got into the water and pushed the overflowing boat to the shore. Now that same skill set has brought her to the Olympic Games.
When she and her teammates enter the stadium, the IOC, which hasn’t endured this much scrutiny since the scandals surrounding the Salt Lake Winter Games in 2002, can take a moment to know it did something right.
Rio Olympics: Before the opening ceremony
The IOC has been under a microscope, deservedly so, for much of the lead-up to Rio. From the problems surrounding the host city – Zika virus, dirty water, unfinished venues, a crumbling political and economic infrastructure – to the Russian doping scandal, the IOC has seen easier days. Most recently, HBO’s detailed expose of IOC practices, from the lavish demands of members to the exacting standards it places on a host city that can threaten its very survival, has made some question whether the Olympics can continue in its current model.
The IOC, of course, has been criticized as an overwhelmingly male, elite world power for some time, an image that is hard to change. Many thought that when former IOC President Jacques Rogge, who competed in sailing at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, opted to sleep in the athletes’ village when he began his tenure in 2001, a change might be in the air for the organization. But how much does such a gesture actually have to do with what is really wrong with the IOC?
The Russians going to Rio ... and some who aren't
While demanding change from the IOC is critical, it is also important to understand some of the key political decisions it has made. The IOC banned South Africa, for example, from 1964 to 1988 because of its apartheid policies. It banned Afghanistan from the Sydney Games in 2000 because of the treatment of women and the prohibition of sports under Taliban rule. In 2012, the IOC forced Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar to field teams with women for the first time.
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The ancient Olympics were designed to disrupt the cycle of wars, to create a time when peace could be visualized, if not found. In ancient Greece, before and after each Olympic Games, a truce, Ekecheiria, was called to allow people to travel safely to and from the competitions. By fielding the refugee team in Rio, the IOC has shown a glimmer of its overarching principles: sport played in the name of peace and humanity.
“We have one thing in common – we’re all athletes,” a member of the refugee team said at a recent press conference in Rio.
In a world where the Syrian crisis has created a global conversation about who does and does not belong in any given country and a U.S. presidential candidate speaks of building walls and quota systems, the International Olympic Committee has put a spotlight on a small group of athletes so that they can tell their stories, stories that some 60 million people across the world are part of.