As I watched the Opening Ceremonies of the Rio Games and saw how the Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA)1 were promoted, I was reminded of a racist joke that I heard as a kid:
Q: Why isn’t Mexico any good at the Olympics?
A: Cuz anyone who can run, jump, or swim is already over here.
Recalling this unfortunate, ignorant joke (and its awful syntax) made me think about the actual physical demands of migration and the strenuous effort, not to mention the considerable psychological resolve, that it takes to flee the place you call home—because your life is in immediate danger—for some mysterious place that may or may not accept you. As much as I’d like to distance myself from such callousness, the schoolyard joke illustrates how easily stories of astounding physical efforts to survive persecution and danger become framed by the only way we have of understanding such exertion: competitive athletics.
Take Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, who fled Syria on a dingy only to find the vessel to be taking on water. She, her sister Sarah, and the two other refugees in the boat swam three and a half hours before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos. Mardini recounts a level of complete exhaustion that few, if any, might be able to understand: “Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that.” She also seems to have a sense of humor that would make Beckett or Kafka proud: “It’s quite hard just to think that you’re a swimmer and in the end you’re going to die in the water.”
Mardini and the other nine ROAs have become known more informally as “Refugee Nation.” Watching them compete and reading about their lives, it’s almost inhuman not be moved by their courageous stories. I don’t want to be a killjoy (really, I don’t), and yet even as I try and imagine their astonishing efforts to stay alive, I can’t help but be cynical about how the media—especially NBC with its propensity to cloying sentimentality—and the IOC use these athletes’ difficult journeys as feel-good stories to help offset the threat of the Zika virus, the 77,000 citizens of Rio displaced to make room for the Olympics, and the police state keeping watch over the favelas to make sure Brazil’s underclass stay in their slums. Just as I can’t help be cynical about how the ROAs are made into political symbols (“messages of hope”) that everyone can get behind and support. As fellow killjoy Roger Cohen astutely points out in the New York Times, cheering on these athletes allows us to “care” about refugees without having to think about offering them (and the millions of other refugees) refuge. We don’t have to redress or even think very deeply about the political crises that caused them to be refugees or the multitudes of other refugees who have died searching desperately for some kind of sanctuary.
But even beyond the Rio Games themselves, the ROAs very presence calls into question the entire idea of international competition and of the nation itself. That the IOC (the International Olympic Committee) has chosen to recognize the political status of these athletes and not created some obscure category for them is unprecedented.2 For instance, in previous Games, the IOC designated those athletes without a nation or those whose nations were mired in political turmoil as “Independent Olympic Athletes” (as in the case of the former Yugoslav republics at the 1992 Barcelona games), essentially denying them any kind of larger group-based or national affiliation.
So that it took until 2016 for the IOC to adopt some kind of policy to account for those competitors who—for reasons they had no control over other than simply wanting to stay alive—have no national affiliation seemed, at the very least, surprising. After all, the IOC doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to recognizing how sports and politics might be connected, adopting instead the astoundingly naive and disingenuous position that “sport should be clean from any politics.” But with over 65 million people now classified as refugees seeking asylum (50 million more than existed just fours years ago at the time of the London Games), the IOC perhaps had no choice but to recognize these athletes. Another part of its reluctance to create a designation for refugee athletes, might be that the idea of athletes who don’t belong to any proper nation conflicts with the idea of national affiliation that’s at the very core of the Olympics.
When the French aristocrat and educational reformer, Pierre de Coubertin, commissioned the modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens his goal was to foster peace among nations3:
Wars break out because nations misunderstand each other. We shall not have peace until the prejudices which now separate the different races shall have been outlived. To attain this end, what better means than to bring the youth of all countries periodically together for amicable trials of muscular strength and agility?
I’m not sure that Coubertin’s rhetorical question follows logically from the previous sentences, but his intent seems noble enough. It was also written 1896 when the idea of a nation as an organized and unified territory4—not just a loose conglomeration of city-states or provinces—was still pretty new. Germany and Italy, for instance, were only unified as nations in 1871 (although both the dates and unifications remain sources of debate). Of course, he also wrote the charter while European nations had carved up the globe in the name of colonialism, and none of the residents of the colonies were invited to participate (except for Australia, which was technically still a British colony at the time). The Olympics of 1896 had only 14 nations competing against one another, all of whom were European except for the US and Australia, and all the competitors were white men. Women weren’t allowed to compete because Coubertin thought the idea of female sports to be “impractical, uninteresting, unathletic, and incorrect.” So Coubertin’s intention of getting the nations together to end racial misunderstanding seems pretty limited.
And not just limited but, well, very problematic–not just because of the exclusionary politics, either. One need only think of the Nazi propaganda surrounding the 1936 Berlin Games on the cusp of World War II; or the 1972 Munich Games in which Palestinian terrorists stormed the Olympic Village and took 11 Israeli athletes, coaches, and judges hostage whom they then executed; or the 1996 bombing of the Centennial Park at the Atlanta Games by Eric Rudolph that killed one and injured 111 (to thwart the spread of “global socialism”), to recall just how the Olympics, while intended to promote and foster peace, can end up doing just the opposite.5
To think of these as anomalous or exceptional instances misses the danger that comes with symbolical identification with a nation for the purposes of competition. Olympic athletics may ideally provide the opportunity for citizens to represent their nation and participate in a display of global harmony, but the games themselves tend to evoke “hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence,” as George Orwell points out in his 1945 essay, “The Sporting Spirit”:
[A]s soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. […] At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.
Orwell’s scathing critique exposes two connected, and rather obvious, oversights in Coubertin’s belief that the Olympics could foster peace. For the one, the very nature of competition itself, founded as it is upon deciding winners and losers, seems like an illogical way of promoting global equality. And, two, fans6 stoke the passions of patriotism and nationalistic fervor—the kind that spews bile at an athlete who has devoted pretty much her entire life to representing the US at the Olympics for not putting her hand over her heart during the national anthem—at the expense of other competitors. It’s hardly a coincidence, then, that even in league professional sports (as opposed to national or Olympic sports, which are now professional themselves since the IOC phased out the notion of “amateur” athletes in 1988), groups of fans conceive of themselves as a nation (e.g., Red Sox Nation, Tar Heel Nation).
Naturally, I became skeptical, then, of how the ROAs had become symbolically identified with a larger nation, even if that nation was the “Refugee Nation.” But as I read the brief biographies of and the statements from the athletes, they seemed more than willing to think of themselves as symbolic representations. “We are ambassadors for the other refugees,” declared Yiech Pur Biel, a refugee from South Sudan running the 800 meter race. I thought about floating in a tiny dingy in middle of the Mediterranean with no land in sight and no fixed destination and about the darkness of the nights where nothing is visible, except for the water below and the moon and stars above, which sounds poetic but also terrifying in a way that I can’t even begin imagine. I thought about the cosmic loneliness that I imagine so many refugees feel. And then I thought that it might feel not just therapeutic but purposeful, after experiencing such a profound sense of solitude, to want to represent something larger than yourself.
The Rio Games—problematic and troubling though they may have been—and the ROAs evoke Coubertin and his ideals, just not the way he would have intended. Simply by their presence, the ROAs blatantly expose his flawed logic and monolithic understanding of race and nationhood and reveal just how complex as well as exclusionary nations and nationalisms can be. These athletes, whom Coubertin never would have allowed to compete, offer us a different way of thinking about a “nation” that bases its identity not on the arbitrariness of place of birth or of linguistic similarity, but on an action—on having left or fled someplace—rather than the fate or luck of where you happen to be born through no effort of your own.7 For all the muscular prowess on display during these Olympics, the effort it takes to imagine and consciously construct the idea of a nation based on empathy seems the most arduous and the most heroic.
* From the ninth, and final, stanza of “Ode to Sport” (“Ode au Sport”) composed by Pierre de Coubertin (under the pseudonym Georges Hohrod and M. Eschbach) and awarded the gold medal in literature at the 1912 Stockholm Games. Medals were also awarded for architecture, music, painting, and sculpture. Art competitions were part of the Olympic Games until 1948.
1. The official Rio Games site refers to these athletes as the Refugee Olympic Team, but in the interest of not adopting the acronym ROT for obvious reasons, I’m going with ROA.
2. Although it has been attempted before. In 1952, prior to the Helsinki Games, a group of exiled anti-communist athletes sought to be recognized as the Union of Free Eastern European Sportsmen (UFEES), which was funded and organized by the CIA. Their request was denied.
3. Building rapport among nations was certainly important, even if those initial late-19th and early-20th Century games didn’t have the same sense of national representation. That is, while there were competitors from the different nations, they didn’t have the same sense of national unity or purpose or of competing for national pride in a direct and representative way. That overriding sense of symbolic national identification came a bit later on Olympic history.
4. What comprises a nation has been debated and contested not only by nations themselves but by academics the world over. Rather than tiptoe through this interpretive minefield I’m just going to cowardly pitch a tent a safe distance away.
5. After concerted and repeated efforts by the family members of the victims of the Munich massacre, the 2016 Games in Rio mark the first time in which the slain Israeli athletes have been officially memorialized by IOC. Previous requests submitted for other Olympic Games were denied. Remember, “sport should be clean of any politics.”
6. It’s difficult to criticize Coubertin for not recognizing the role of spectators since there’s no way he could have foreseen how how ferocious sports fandom would become in the following centuries.
7. Obviously people can belong to a different nation other than the one in which the were born, which is readily evident during the Olympics. For instance, the track and field groups representing Middle Eastern countries (most prominently, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates) consist almost solely of Kenyans and Ethiopians, who’ve been incentivized to forgo their native citizenship and race for these countries. After Kenyan-born Ruth Jeret won gold in the 3,000-meter steeplechase competing for Bahrain, she said her first trip would be to go to home to Kenya (and then to Bahrain). The money she receives to compete for Bahrain, she sends home to her family: “I thank my daughter for the victory. She bought me land and cows, and built me a house. I shed tears when she won gold,” beamed her father. But not all Kenyans citizen were so happy to see Jeret win gold for a different nation, and still think of her as a Kenyan rather than as a Bahraini.