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The Refugee Olympic Team: an illusion of inclusion?

The presence of the refugee team at Rio highlights the need to re-evaluate the nationalistic ideology that surrounds and informs modern global sports.

Max Mauro
25 September 2016
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The Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016. David J. Phillip / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

At Rio, the media were eager to define the refugee team as a 'great Olympic story' but it is quite the opposite. 

The first edition of the modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, was a competition between individual athletes rather than nations or countries. Over the years, however, the Olympics has become the most spectacular projection and representation of ‘nation states’ on the global stage. Despite the inclusive and egalitarian claims of the Olympic project, stateless athletes, and even those holding more than one nationality, soon became an oxymoron. They could not fit the traditional mould and were not allowed to compete.

Nevertheless, the idea of admitting a team made up entirely of refugees is a total novelty for modern sporting mega-events. It is, to some extent, a message of ‘inclusion’, because as the IOC president Thomas Bach pointed out, the refugee team’s participation could "make the world better aware of the magnitude of this crisis".

At the same time, however, the team is evidence of the structural inability of modern organised sports to cater for people who, for various reasons, are not citizens of a recognised state. How can someone compete at the Olympics or play in the FIFA World Football Cup if they are not ‘nationals’ of a country? If the dominant narrative around these extremely lucrative and expensive events is essentially one that sees ‘us’ versus ‘them’, nation versus nation, what role is left for those who do not belong?

There have been exceptions to the pattern. For example, the Yugoslav athletes who were allowed to take part in the 1992 Games in Barcelona under the Olympic flag because of the conflict plaguing their country. Another example is the individual athletes whose national Olympic committee is non-existent or banned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as is the case of Ehaid Al-Deehani, the marksman from Kuwait who made history in Rio becoming the first athlete to win a gold medal as an ‘independent athlete’.

The refugee team is evidence of the structural inability of modern organised sports to cater for people who are not citizens of a recognised state

It is not simply a moral and legal problem for states and transnational organisations such as the United Nations or the European Union. It is a political issue that epitomises the way sports governing bodies, both at national and international levels, function and what their contribution to the symbolic maintenance of the national state system may be. They are the purest expression of an "inter-state worldview"[1] which is inapt to address what Giorgio Agamben defines as "a normative tension mounting within western democracies"[2]. According to Agamben, "what the industrialised states are faced with today is a mass of permanent resident noncitizens, who neither can be nor want to be naturalised or repatriated".[3] This is particularly evident in Europe.

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) estimates that at least 680,000 people in Europe are without citizenship of any country. Children born to refugees or asylum seekers are the most exposed to this problem, as they cannot usually be attributed a nationality if their parents have lost their own or do not possess a birth certificate, as is the case, for example, for many children born in refugee camps in Africa.

Furthermore, according to Eurostat, at the end of 2015 there were about 90,000 unaccompanied minors in the European Union. ‘Unaccompanied’ means that they travelled without the presence of a parent, relative or legal guardian. In accordance with the United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child, unaccompanied minors have the right to protection until they turn 18 and they should not be deported (even though very often the contrary happens, as recently admitted by the Home Office). To some extent, children are a ‘protected’ category among refugees. However, national and international sports governing bodies are not prepared to welcome them and in many cases they openly exclude them from organised sports. This is what happens in association football, the most global of sports.

Countries in Europe and across the world possess legislation to favour naturalisation on the basis of sporting merits

According to FIFA's rules, the first registration of children who are not nationals of the country where they wish to play has to be examined by a Sub-committee within FIFA's Players' Status and Governance department, based at the organisations' headquarters in Switzerland. Over the years, FIFA has developed a body of norms aimed at the protection of minors. The objective of these norms is to prevent the trafficking of young players from 'poor' countries mainly in Europe.

These norms, while controlling and regulating the scouting of young talent across the world, have arguably reinforced the role of FIFA and national FAs as safeguards of symbolic national boundaries and identities. To this day, despite the growing number of refugee children admitted into Europe, FIFA has granted the registration to unaccompanied minors only "on very limited occasions and with extreme reservation." [4]

This is not surprising. All international sports, and particularly football, function as national sports. They are not suited to accommodate something that lays outside of their institutional scope. There are obviously exceptions, but these are reserved for the most talented among athletes and players. Many countries in Europe and across the world possess legislation to favour naturalisation on the basis of sporting merits. This could arguably happen also to the members of the refugee olympic team. It is a process of selection which reflects the function of the "border as method"[5] — the border used as a filter to serve the interests of a country and, in this case, of a particular national industry such as sport.

All international sports, and particularly football, function as national sports

The recent success of the UK team at the Olympics proves that governments are eager to invest large amounts of money to win medals and titles in international sport competitions. The underlying discourse, which crosses political ideologies, is that sport victories will enhance the international prestige of the country and favour its internal cohesion glorifying the "imagined communities"[6] which we are made to think of as nations. If refugees are exceptional athletes, their 'integration' ought to be facilitated and even encouraged, as this could help to attain such political goals.

Global leisure industries such as the Olympic Games, the nation states who support them, and the sponsors and corporate partners that benefit from their existence, are only ready to use refugees as pawns, to create an illusion of inclusion. Their existence points to the need to re-evaluate the national(istic) ideology that surrounds and informs modern global sports, which, as it stands, mainly benefits the stronger and wealthier countries.


[1] Levermore, R., 2004: «Sport’s role in constructing the ‘interstate’ worldview», Levermore; R. and Budd, A. (eds), Sports and international relations: an emerging relationship, London: Routledge, 16-30.

[2] Agamben, G., 1995 [1993]: «We Refugees», Symposium, 49(2): 114-119.

[3] ibid.

[4] Mauro, M., 2016: The Balotelli Generation. Issues of Inclusion and Belonging in Italian Football and Society, Bern: Peter Lang.

[5] Mezzadra, S. and Neilson, B., 2013: Border as method, or the multiplication of labor, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[6] Anderson, D., 2006: Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, London: Verso.

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