Hope amid a global pandemic © UNHCR/Jordi Matas
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Hope amid a global pandemic

The Tokyo Olympics gave a message of ‘hope, solidarity and peace’ amid the COVID-19 pandemic

After five years of preparation and seventeen days of triumph and heartbreak, the Tokyo Olympic Games are officially over and for the many Australians who have been facing lockdowns, these Games couldn’t have come at a better time.

In his closing ceremony speech, the International Olympic Committee President (IOC), Thomas Bach called the Tokyo Olympics the “Games of hope, solidarity and peace” amid the pandemic.

“For the first time since the pandemic began, the entire world came together. Sport returned to centre stage. Billions of people around the globe were united by emotion, sharing moments of joy and inspiration."

“This gives us hope. This gives us faith in the future,”

“You inspired us with this unifying power of sport. This is even more remarkable given the many challenges you had to face because of the pandemic,” Bach said to the athletes at the closing ceremony. 

While Australia finished sixth in the Olympic medal tally and had its second-best Games ever, the achievements of these Games go well beyond medals.

The Tokyo Olympics will be remembered as the Games that brought us together. We saw athletes who had neither family nor supporters there to cheer them on, barrack for each other and we discovered new-found heroes, such as Peter Bol.

Born in Sudan, Peter Bol and his family fled to Egypt when he was four, before migrating to Australia on a humanitarian visa four years later.

Peter went to school in Perth on a basketball scholarship, but his running talent was noticed by a sports teacher as he kept winning races in school athletics. Despite initially resisting the sport, he eventually he gave it a shot.

Hope amid a global pandemic © UNHCR/Jordi Matas
Syrian refugee, Olympic swimmer and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Yusra Mardini. During the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony, Yusra was one of the flag bearers for the Refugee Olympic Team. She once swam for life and safety despite seemingly insurmountable currents, fleeing the conflict in Syria in 2015. © UNHCR/Jordi Matas
Extension Hope Amid A Global Pandemic Alia
Alia Issa, the first ever female refugee Para athlete who hopes to show young women with disabilities and other female refugees how sport can open a world of possibilities. © Getty images / Milos Bicanski

The 27-year-old competed in Rio in 2016 but in Tokyo, he became the first Australian in 53 years to run the 800-metre final. While Peter finished fourth in the final, he won legions of fans and captured our hearts.

“I didn’t know if I was going to win, but I knew one thing for certain, that the whole of Australia was watching – and that carried me on,” Bol said after the race.

“We’re human at the end of the day. We inspired the whole nation. That’s the goal,” he said. 

While the Refugee Olympic Team didn’t take home any medals, their presence and their journeys was enough to inspire the world.

Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee and a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR has been an inspiration and a powerful voice for the forcibly displaced across the world.

Mardini represented Syria in international swimming meets, but as the conflict in her country worsened, she and her sister fled in 2015 to try to get to Europe.

From Turkey, Mardini boarded a small boat for the 10-kilometre trip to a Greek island that was supposed to take 45 minutes. When the motor on the rubber dinghy, meant for six people but was carrying 20, broke, she and her sister were among those who got into the water and swam to lighten the load and bring the boat safely to shore.

“We’re human at the end of the day. We inspired the whole nation. That’s the goal.”

Mardini eventually made her way to Berlin, Germany, where she now lives. Like other athletes, she said sport gave her life meaning and direction during her adjustment.

“I tell my story because I want people to understand that sport saved my life.”

While she fell short of the semi-finals in the 100 metre butterfly, she reminded the world that refugees are more than just stories, they are people too.

“I think it’s a great opportunity to represent millions (of refugees) around the world, to represent that those people are normal and have dreams,” Mardini said.

From next Tuesday (24 August) you will be able to cheer on the six athletes who make up the Refugee Paralympic Team, including Aila Issa, the first female refugee Paralympian athlete.

President of the IPC, Andrew Parsons, welcomed the announcement of the Refugee Paralympic Team and the power of sport to promote the inclusion of refugees with disabilities in society.

"I would urge people everywhere to support the world’s most courageous sports team, the Refugee Paralympic Team," Parsons said.

"These athletes exemplify how change starts with sport: they have suffered life-changing injuries, fled for their safety and undertaken dangerous journeys, but despite the many barriers put in their way, they have become elite athletes ready to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.”

The Paralympic Games commence on Tuesday 24 August and end on 5 September.

Follow us on Instagram @australiaforunhcr to see updates on when the Refugee Paralympic Team will be competing.

Extension Hope Amid A Global Pandemic Anas
Para-canoeist Anas Al Khalifa almost lost hope until he found sport. After escaping conflict in Syria and eventually making his way to Germany, he suffered a devastating spinal cord injury whilst at work. His life was once again turned upside down as he learned he may not be able to walk again. One day his physiotherapist suggested he try para kayaking. At first it seemed hopeless – but he kept trying and he kept on improving.  His coach says he is like a different person after he has been on the water. © Getty images / Reinaldo Coddou H

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