August 12, 2016


Refugee team offers testimony to the true spirit of Olympics

With the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, garnering so much media attention this month, it should come as no surprise that Pope Francis’ universal prayer intention for August is “that sports may be an opportunity for friendly encounters between peoples and may contribute to peace in the world.”

What some sports enthusiasts may not have envisioned is a team this year competing under the auspices of the Refugee Olympic team.

Consisting of 10 members, the team includes athletes from South Sudan, Syria, Congo and Ethiopia. These games marked the first time a refugee team officially participated in the Olympics.

Team members marched under the Olympic flag in the opening ceremonies and, if a team member wins a gold medal, the Olympic anthem was to be played instead of the national anthem of the athlete’s home country.

The group caught the attention of Pope Francis, who noted that he had read some of the interviews with team members, “so that I could get closer to your lives and your aspirations.”

The pope’s words concerning the team didn’t stop there.

“I extend my greetings and wish you success at the Olympic Games in Rio—that your courage and strength find expression through the Olympic Games, and serve as a cry for peace and solidarity,” he said in a personal message addressed to each of the 10 members, signed in late July.

Pope Francis also expressed his hope that through the team “humanity would understand that peace is possible, that with peace everything can be gained, but with war all can be lost.

“Your experience serves as testimony and benefits us all,” the pope told the team members.

The heartrending stories some of the refugees bring to the competition make their participation that much more remarkable.

Yusra Mardini, an 18-year-old swimmer from Syria, fled her war-torn country through Lebanon and Turkey. She found a space on a rubber dingy to make her way to Lesbos, Greece, but the motor stalled. She, her sister and another woman—the only people on the boat who could swim—pushed the boat to shore.

From Greece, Mardini traveled on to Germany, where she was given official refugee status in March, and continued her training as a competitive swimmer.

Five of the athletes—including Rose Nathike Lokonyen, 23, the team’s flag bearer for the opening ceremony—are South Sudanese refugees who were living in the huge Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

In his message to all Olympic athletes in Rio during his weekly general audience on Aug. 3, the Holy Father reminded the participants that there were more important things to gain than a gold medal at the Summer Games.

“In a world thirsting for peace, tolerance and reconciliation,” Pope Francis said, “I wish that the spirit of the Olympic Games would inspire all—participants and spectators—to fight ‘the good fight’ and end the race together, desiring as a prize not a medal, but something much more precious: the creation of a civilization where there reigns solidarity founded on the recognition that we are all members of one human family, no matter the differences of culture, skin color or religion.”

Many of us are awed by the skill and excellence of Olympians in their chosen sport. But like the Syrian refugee family that arrived in Indianapolis last December and others who have fled persecution and violence in war-torn countries, the Olympic athletes who are refugees show us an unwavering spirit that should inspire us.

Let’s each take to heart Pope Francis’ evangelization prayer intention for August “that Christians may live the Gospel, giving witness to faith, honesty, and love of neighbor.”

May that witness include not only our support and prayers for members of the Refugee Olympic team, all refugees and all Olympians, but all who cross our path each day.

—Mike Krokos

Local site Links: