RIO DE JANEIRO: Members of the first-ever Olympic refugee team visited Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Christ statue Saturday, with smiles as wide as their arms were outstretched, imitating the landmark’s open embrace as they posed for photos.
A mist of light clouds softened the afternoon light, giving the athletes who come from harrowing backgrounds a heavenly glimpse of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, with its golden sand beaches, blue ocean and lush green Atlantic rain forest below.
Standing at the base of the statue, Yusra Mardini, a swimmer who fled Syria’s war and trains in Germany, said that the entire refugee team was elated to be in Rio “because all of them have the same strong feeling about never giving up, and they did a lot to reach here.”
Rio’s Olympics that open this Friday and run through Aug. 21 are the first to include a team entirely of refugees, which includes ten athletes from four countries who will compete under the Olympic flag.
The team of six men and four women includes five athletes from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from Democratic Republic of Congo and one from Ethiopia.
They will compete in swimming, judo and athletics.
After posing for photos with tourists at the Christ the Redeemer statue, James Nyang Chiengjiek, a track and field athlete from South Sudan to compete in the 400 meter run, said since he arrived Friday he had been warmly welcomed everywhere in Rio.
“All the people are so happy. They are waiting for us in the airport, they are so happy to see us,” he said. “We have so many friends, it is good to interact with them.”
Another South Sudanese track athlete, Rose Nathike Lokonyen, who will compete in the 800 meter run, said the entire team was surprised to be taking part in the Games.
“In our lifetime we never thought that running could be something that can have a benefit,” she said. “But right now I am really interested, and have an interest in sport.”
(Writing by Brad Brooks; Editing by Mary Milliken)