Sports and IR: The Performative Liberation of Refugee Athletes

As 29 displaced athletes from around the world marched under the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony of this year’s Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, the international community once again drew its attention to the role of sports in transforming the lives of refugees. Refugee athletes first strode into the global spotlight when the Refugee Olympic Team was formed through the joint effort of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) before the 2016 Rio Games. The Refugee Team was intended to be a “symbol of hope” that could showcase the extraordinary talent of individuals that are so often lost to war and conflict. However, the persistence of this hope was called into question as six of the team’s best runners were notably absent from this year’s games due to their decision to abscond from the Refugee Athlete Support Programme. These athletes attributed their decision to forfeit to their dissatisfaction with the system that denied them the opportunities to build a life for themselves outside the program. 

This story highlights a major flaw in the way that the international sports community as well as most scholars on the subject understand the intersection between sports and people with refugee backgrounds. The engagement of refugees in sport and physical activity is always seen as a means to an end, but never an end in itself. Policymakers and academics alike have praised the use of sports as a tool for integrating refugees into the socio-cultural environment of the countries that they migrate to or as a form of escape/healing from the mental and physical impacts of their traumatic experiences. However, these sports programmes that are designed for refugees rarely focus on helping talented individuals to pursue a sport for the sake of the sport itself – that is, by enabling them to take up a professional sporting career and transform their lives in the process. Instead, the prevalence of this binary categorization of refugee athletes as either engaging in “sports for inclusion” or “sports as medicine” not only ignores the lived experiences of these forced migrants but also continues to project the idea of them as an ‘other’ that will always remain distinct from ordinary professional athletes. Consequently, the notion that participation in sports can serve as a mechanism for the liberation of refugees is reduced to one that is mostly performative. This means that the sports programmes for refugee athletes create a vision for a better future that appears to be achievable to everyone but the athletes themselves.

Sports for Inclusion or Exclusion?

The first dimension of this performative notion of the liberation of refugee athletes becomes evident in the promotion of sports as a means for social assimilation in countries with refugee settlements. Policymakers in regions such as Europe that have been at the forefront of the refugee crisis have been vocal about their support for programs that encourage new migrants to take part in sporting activities as part of their wider agenda of migrant integration. An inherent issue with this approach is that it prioritises the neo-colonial perception of immigrants as an ‘other’ that must be assimilated into Western society over the refugees’ own experiences with the sport. It also presupposes that these migrant athletes would only pursue sporting activities as a tool for greater social inclusion and not as a potential career option, as evidenced by the fact that the majority of the literature on the subject of sports and migrants only focuses on non-professional sports

It is this exact attitude that forced those six refugees to flee the very same program that made them Olympic athletes. Dominic Lokinyomo Lobalu, who is one of the runners that fled the refugee program, claimed that he was not paid for any of his achievements, which denied him the opportunity to improve the material conditions of his life after escaping war-torn South Sudan. Instead, he was faced with managers who held the general belief that, as refugees, he and his teammates must simply feel grateful for even being included in the star-studded list of athletes set to compete at the Olympics. 

This notion of the inclusivity of sport for refugees becomes even more of a farce when taking into account the fact that, after quitting the program and seeking asylum in Switzerland, Lobalu discovered that the IOC had banned all the runners who defected from even trying out for the Olympics. The Committee argued that the men lost their refugee status upon settling in a foreign country and have thus forfeited their right to compete under the banner of the Refugee Olympic Team. At the same time, however, Lobalu’s decision to seek refuge in Switzerland does not guarantee that he will be able to compete as a Swiss national at the Olympics as it may take up to a decade for him to obtain Swiss citizenship. Thus, even though they continue to live as forced migrants in a foreign country, Lobalu and his fellow defectors are being excluded from the opportunities that the IOC had designed for the inclusion of refugee athletes. This reveals the stark reality about international refugee athlete programmes that are only designed to project a promising image of liberating victims of war and conflict while preventing them from significantly altering their status quo as individuals trapped between countries. 

Sports as (Defective) Medicine 

This facade of liberation is just as prevalent in the alternate perception of sports as a source of healing for refugees that can help them recover from the impact of their distressing past. The positive physical and mental health outcomes of sporting activities for asylum seekers has been extensively studied and corroborated by the testimonies of refugee athletes who claim that partaking in a sport has given them a renewed purpose in life. However, the mobilization of sports as medicine for refugees does not do much to change the stereotypical perception of them as an ‘other’ that needs to be “fixed”, which in turn continues to distinguish between refugee athletes and ‘normal’ athletes. The impact of this otherization of refugee athletes is clear in the words of Angelina Lohalith, another South Sudanese runner from the Refugee Olympic Team. Lohalith remarked that she sometimes felt that she was “not among the people” after having been denied the opportunity to receive the same second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine that was secured by the organizers of the Tokyo Olympics and distributed to other athletes representing national teams. She also mentioned that, prior to this year’s Games, she had been living at a Kenyan refugee camp that had become extremely unsafe since the outbreak of the pandemic. 

This calls into question the effectiveness of the idea of using sports to ‘heal’ refugees because even if they can improve their wellbeing by engaging in a sport, most of the time their sporting career does not free them from the harmful material conditions of their lives that can inflict mental and physical trauma on these athletes. This issue is nowhere more evident than in the case of the female Afghan athletes whose participation in the Olympics has placed a target on the backs of their families in Afghanistan as the nation has fallen to the Taliban. Members of the Afghan women’s national cycling team that once had hopes of competing in the Olympics are now burning their biking clothes and accessories to get rid of any evidence that the Taliban could use to identify them. The mental and physical wellbeing that these athletes had achieved through their cycling career will now be lost to the precarious conditions of living in a region ridden with conflict. Meanwhile, the same cycling community that once celebrated these women for uplifting themselves through the sport has remained silent when they are most in need of liberation and upliftment. 

Sports for Real Liberation

The symbol of hope that arrived with the Refugee Olympic Team at the 2020 Tokyo Games may have touched the hearts of all those that witnessed it, but it does not seem to have extended to the athletes themselves. Thus, while the role of sports in rebuilding the lives of refugees is undeniable, there is an urgent need to understand it beyond the narrow dimensions of social integration and health promotion. For refugees, sports can be more than just a distraction from their trauma or a way to fit in with their new foreign neighbours – it can be a chance to free themselves from the constraints that their status as forced migrants places on their ability to live full lives. However, in order for these sports programmes to be a true vehicle for liberation, they must move away from their neo-colonial assimilationist tendencies and provide these refugees with the means to improve the material conditions of their lives and pursue a professional career in the sport of their choice, even outside of the refugee programme. Only then can the hope for a better world that is provided by the performance of refugee athletes on the global stage manifest into a reality for the athletes themselves. 

Sagara Ann Johny is a third-year student at Ashoka University studying Economics, Finance and International Relations.

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