This year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games have one team that is unlike the rest. Its members do not share a common country, but rather, a common experience.
The Refugee Olympic Team (ROT) does more than just raise awareness of the issues refugees around the world are facing—it also shows how sport can bridge divides between refugees and the rest of the world, says Meredith Whitley, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise science, health studies, physical education and sport management. Whitley has studied and worked with programs that introduce sport as a way to help refugee children and others cope with their situations and learn important skills in coping, problem-solving, teamwork and communication, among other things.
The mega-sport platform of the Olympics also creates a way to relate to and talk about refugees that breaks away from the mostly negative narrative while giving a voice to those that are so often spoken for by others.
“The ROT shows incredible potential for sport to bridge divides and to create a space for dialogue about the circumstances that led to the ROT teammates becoming refugees,” says Whitley. “The power of the ROT is that they’re not just being recognized for the struggles they’ve been through, but for what they’re capable of.”
Most significantly, Whitley says sport is a great way to connect to and interact with one another, despite the language barrier or cultural differences. Sport serves as a language we all understand.
“Sport has the potential to give people a sense of belonging” both at the community and global levels, she says. “For refugee children, playing soccer and passing the ball can help them build relationships. Even if you can’t speak the same language, you’re creating your own language together.”
While sport has the potential to bridge these major divides, says Whitley, we must make sure that when the games are over, those bridges aren’t diminished and forgotten.