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More than a Game

The images of Team Refugee at the Olympics offers a glimmer of hope in a gloomy summer

Not for the first time this summer my body has responded physically to issues personal and political: a self-interested British prime minister offering up a sealed-off coastline; an irate UK electorate duly opting for an unprecedented state of isolation; multiple examples of obnoxious political cronyism on both the left and right of British politics; a despicably xenophobic, misogynistic, anti-humanitarian US presidential nominee; a series of (not disconnected) online celebrity bitch hunts; exorbitant numbers of the world’s dispossessed increasing daily; horrific and numerous racist attacks worldwide and daily abuses of the word ‘terrorism’. No surprise, then, at the surge from my tear ducts with the sight of the Olympics’ first Refugee Team walking out together during Rio’s opening ceremony. This time though, hope sprung from the images on screen.

Of the ten-strong, neutrally clad team of athletes from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, one story leapt out, that of Yusra Mardini, who, fleeing from her native Syria to Germany, was forced to jump out of the dingy taking her from Turkey to Greece, and, along with her sister, guide the boat to shore, saving 18 fellow passengers. Now she finds herself in the competition pool of the most televized sporting event on Earth.

But who was responsible for organizing this non-national team, in the most political of non-political events? According to official Olympic sources, it was the brainchild of Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Ceremony (IOC). He put a USD$2 million fund in place last summer, funded by 17, largely European, National Olympic Committees (NOCs), which then: ‘set in motion a collaborative process involving the IOC, National Olympic Committees, International Federations and UNHCR to identify athletes with refugee status and sufficient talent to compete at an Olympic level.’ Ten athletes were selected from more than 1000, and now over the next two weeks we will watch them compete in athletics, swimming, and Judo.

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Rose Lokonyen Nathike carries the flag of Refugee Olympic Team during the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Rose Lokonyen Nathike carries the flag of Refugee Olympic Team during the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Will this gesture do any long-term good? Cynically, we might consider the refugees’ involvement a temporary, short term opiate, another propaganda ploy to overshadow an unusually destabilized Olympic PR programme (even by its own standards). In the run up to the Games, Rio’s budget was slashed, its infrastructure condemned, its air contaminated with the Zika virus, its competing athletes under suspicion of doping, among other local catastrophes. Cynicism aside, might the feel-good element of this picture, of this team’s visibility, be harnessed to create a more long term, far-reaching and politically mobilizing sense of empathy during an otherwise diabolic summer?

Perhaps the picture of this team can be used as a thought experiment, a picture game, to think through today’s impasses. A picture to change a political climate that solidifies and reinforces potentially arbitrary distinctions on a daily basis: us and them, black and white, him and her, my faith and yours, native and immigrant.

The exercise might work, or work just for the moment. Team Refugees presents a unity of singularities that does not bear one national flag or costume or anthem, but carries within it the sensibilities and memory of many. The images of this team of Olympians being broadcast into tens of millions of homes is the picture of people as united in achievement as they are in displacement, situated within an organization produced by and productive of sheer, unfettered nationalism. This picture is one that comes of ghastly repression, individual suffering and homelessness, but it also presents us all with a paradigm shift, a possible unity evolving and unleashed from nationalism.

What’s also important about Team Refugee is to recognize that at any given moment, it is one to which any of us might belong. Cultural heritage, like biological DNA, is always vulnerable to unforeseen political shifts, much like the ones we’re witnessing now. Ultimately, we are all Haraway ’s cyborgs: social and historical constructs, singular fusions of limbs, digits and endoits. And this cyborg knows exactly who she’ll be cheering in this competition.

Yusra Mardini swims today in the Women’s 100m Freestyle heats, beginning 17.02 BST

Main Image: Yusra Mardini, a swimmer of the Refugee Olympic Team from Syria, attends a welcome ceremony at the athletes village for the Rio de Janeiro Games on 3 August, 2016. Courtesy: AP/Press Association Images /Kyodo

Isobel Harbison is an art critic based in London. Her book, Performing Image, will be published by the MIT Press later this year.

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