For the past two weeks, I’ve ended each of my evenings catching up on the Olympics coverage from the day. The Olympic games—a once-every-four-years gathering of some of the most talented, tenacious, and inspiring people in the world—is rife with challenges, but it also reminds of the best of humanity. Watching people proudly carry the flags of their home countries, compete in events for which they have devoted years of training, and show good sportsmanship to teammates and competitors alike—it brings us together, something we’re all hungry for after the year we’ve experienced.
And while I’ve been riveted by the primetime coverage of Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky’s record-breaking swims and Simone Biles’ brave choice to protect her mental health, I am most inspired by the stories that often don’t make my evening broadcast.
People like Filipina weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, daughter of a tricycle driver, who first started lifting a plastic pipe with concrete weights attached to the ends. Last Monday earned the Philippines their first-ever gold medal—a feat nearly 100 years in the making.
Indian boxer M.C. Mary Kom is the most successful amateur boxer of all time and was selected as the opening ceremony flag bearer by the Indian Olympic Committee. But Mary has overcome incredible obstacles to achieve her success. Her parents were tenant farmers, working in jhum fields in rural India, and before having an athletic outlet, Mary spent her early years helping with farm chores.
And then there is the Refugee Team—29 athletes from 11 countries, all of whom have been displaced from their homes because of violence, conflict, or natural disaster. The Refugee Team, which made its first appearance in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, includes athletes from Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Eritrea, Venezuela, Iran, Afghanistan, and Cameroon.
In the same way that Opportunity International creates opportunities for refugees to work, learn, and support themselves, the Olympic Refugee Team creates opportunities for displaced athletes to compete.
Dorian Keletela, a Congolese sprinter whose parents both died in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is part of this year’s Refugee Team. At age 17, he sought asylum in Portugal and sports provided an escape from his challenging daily realities. “What I want people to know about me is that I am a determined person who never gives up and follows his dreams,” he shared. “My motto is to move forward with faith, determination, courage, patience, and perseverance.”
His teammate and fellow Congolese athlete Popole Misenga shared a similar childhood. Misenga, who competes in Judo, is from the Bukavu region of the DRC, one of the areas most heavily impacted by violence. His mother was killed when Misenga was nine years old, and the young boy stayed alive by fleeing and wandering alone in the jungle for over a week. He was brought to an orphanage in Kinshasa where he discovered Judo. “Judo saved me,” he said. “When you are a child, you need to have a family to give you instructions about what to do, and I didn’t have one. Judo helped me by giving me serenity, discipline, commitment—everything.”
South Sudanese runner James Nyang Chiengjiek took care of cattle in his home country when he was a young boy. But as kidnappings increased as part of the ongoing civil war, Chiengjiek fled to avoid being recruited as a child soldier. He arrived in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, and started running. “All of us got a lot of injuries because of the wrong shoes we had,” he said. “We were sharing. If maybe you have two pairs of shoes, then you help the one that has none.”
“By running well, I am doing something good to help others—especially refugees. Maybe among them are athletes with talent, but who did not yet get any opportunities,” Chiengjiek reflected.
“We have to look back and see where our brothers and sisters are, so if one of them also has talent, we can bring them to train with us and also make their lives better.”
This lesson extends far beyond the Olympics—and even sports. We have to look back and see where our brothers and sisters are so that we can bring them with us. Those of us who have been given opportunities can turn around and help make others’ lives better, too.
The Olympics reminds us that we are part of a global community—and that we have a responsibility to serve one another. So this summer, as you watch the best athletes in the world show off their skills, may you be reminded of the stories behind the headlines, the dreams each athlete represents, the tenacious resilience it took to get to this international stage, and the challenges that these remarkable athletes have overcome. They are inspirations—and they remind us that so much is possible.