The Power of Recognition: The Story of the Refugee Olympic Team

18 février 2022
By Andrew Heinrich, Special Projects and Policy aide to Senator Robert Menendez and founder of Project Rousseau.

On Friday, February 4th, millions of people from around the world will tune into one of sport’s most iconic rituals: The Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games. The Parade of Nations is one of the Opening Ceremony’s most recognized features. The athletes will proudly march behind their respective nation’s flagbearer through Beijing’s National Stadium, wearing outfits designed to reflect their national pride, with their flags on their chests. The epitome of nationalism, fans around the world cheer on the athletes who embody the very best their country has to offer, and the dreams of a nation.

For those who just watched the Tokyo Summer Games a few months ago, the Beijing Opening Ceremony will have one notable absence. Each of the previous two Summer Games, there has been one participating group in the Parade of Nations that is, in fact, not a nation: The Refugee Olympic Team. Formed in 2016 by the IOC, the Refugee Olympic Team enables refugees to participate in the Olympic Games under the IOC flag so as to “send a message of hope to all the refugees in the world.” It has undoubtedly achieved this goal, inspiring refugees in their pursuits in sports and beyond. When the Summer Olympics return to Paris, the Refugee Olympic Team will certainly further inspire refugees around the world, and indeed all of us, as we watch some of the most heroic and resilient Olympic athletes compete on the international stage.

As remarkable as the Refugee Olympic Team is for the inspiration and sentiment it invokes, it is equally notable that the Parade of Nations’ name has not changed to reflect that one team is built around the representation not of a nation, but of a group of people whose unique resilience transcends nations. Sports have long been a vehicle for vying for international recognition, ranging from major powers seeking recognition of their hegemony to emerging states seeking recognition of their statehood. The Refugee Olympic Team poignantly problematizes that paradigm, and begs the question of what political impact the Team has. By first analyzing the ways in which sports and statehood have traditionally interacted, we can arrive at a better understanding of the impact the Refugee Olympic Team may have on refugee issues and the global refugee movement. The often-discussed case of Kosovo’s IOC and UEFA membership demonstrates that sports can contribute to recognition of sovereignty, regardless of whether one subscribes to the declarative or constitutive definition. Similarly, the Refugee Olympic Team contributes to both external recognition amongst non-refugees of the refugee community as a collective to be celebrated and further assisted, and to the internal sense of community and inspiration among refugees. These forces can be harnessed to meaningfully advance political agendas and mobilize resources to aid refugees.

Sports, Statehood, and Nationalism

That sports are an instrument for international politics is hardly a novel concept. Perhaps no state has mastered this instrument better than Kosovo. When Kosovo initially struggled to receive international recognition of its sovereignty through conventional channels, such as United Nations membership, it turned to a longer-term strategy through sport: UEFA membership for its national football club, and IOC membership for its Olympic team. Predictably, Serbia objected, and “accused” Kosovo of using sport as an avenue to achieve recognition when diplomacy had failed them. When one removes the hostility from Serbia’s accusation, it contains a great truth: both about Kosovo and, more macrocosmically, about the relationship between sport and statehood. Kosovo proved that sports could indeed be a valuable marker of state recognition, and that their path towards achieving recognition could be taken by other states seeking recognition.

While the story of Kosovo is often framed as one of external recognition, it is also a story of internal recognition. Kosovar nationalism, and the very sense of Kosovar nationhood itself, was strengthened by its international sports efforts. When Kosovar judo athlete Majlinda Kelmendi brought home Kosovo’s first-ever Olympic medal, a gold from the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, she became the face of the nation.

Kelmendi has called Kosovo’s “recognition” by the IOC “the best thing that ever happened to Kosovo.” Of course, public international law assigns no formal meaning of recognition to IOC membership. However, Kelmendi has a powerful point that touches on both declarative and constitutive definitions of sovereignty. Declarative sovereignty suggests that a state is sovereign only when other states recognize it as such, and constitutive sovereignty that a state becomes sovereign by satisfying the Montevideo Convention’s criteria. These definitions are often suggested to be diametrically opposed, but when it comes to Kelmendi’s use of the term “recognition,” it is clear that sports have the power to contribute to both.

Kosovo’s recognition under the IOC has been questioned precisely because National Olympic Committees did not vote on Kosovo’s membership: the IOC is by no means a recognition of national sentiment of any other nation. However, in a time when diplomatic Olympic boycotts are commonplace, it is notable that not one nation boycotted the Rio games due to Kosovo’s inclusion as a state. Though hardly declarative in the traditional sense, this passive declaration speaks volumes. Similarly, only Serbia’s football association objected to Kosovo’s membership in UEFA, which culminated in a decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport supporting UEFA’s decision that Kosovo met UEFA’s criteria for independent statehood.

Equally interesting is Kelmendi’s insight with respect to the constitutive definition of sovereignty. Indeed, this is perhaps what Kelmendi cared about most. She noted with pride that Kosovo’s admission to the Olympics was the “biggest thing that ever happened to Kosovo” because “now athletes and young kids can dream to be in the Olympics and represent Kosovo.” In a sense, this is a component of the constitutive definition of sovereignty. Kelmendi’s observation is a powerful one: recognition in the world of sports contributes to a more expansive understanding of the constitutive definition of sovereignty, and demonstrates the utility of that more expansive definition.

One of the components of Montevideo’s definition of statehood is the capacity of the state to participate in international relations with other states. While an athlete’s ability to participate in the Olympics on behalf of a state is not part of the traditional definition of participating in international relations, the concepts are intimately related: the ability of a nation to present at the Olympics and be received by other states is a decent approximation of the ability to participate in international relations. Another requirement of statehood is a stable population, and its nationhood undoubtedly depends on the consent of that stable population to be governed by that state. In order to engage in international relations, a state’s citizens– both in more traditional venues like bilateral negotiations and international organisations, and in venues less traditionally defined to be where international relations are conducted, like the Olympics– must wish to see their state represented in those venues. Though having citizens with the dream of representing one’s nation is certainly not precisely the ability to engage in international relations, it is a powerful– and perhaps necessary– corollary: it empowers a citizenry with a tangible objective to represent their nation, and tangible representations of their nationhood in the athletes who represent them.

Sports and Refugees

Though nobody claims that refugees constitute a sovereign state, there is an informative parallel to be drawn between our understanding of refugees as a collective entity and the declarative and constitutive definitions of sovereignty. Though sovereignty depends on a legal definition of “recognition,” Kolmendi’s hybrid use of the term, by alluding to both legal and colloquial definitions of the word, can inform our understanding of how the Refugee Olympic Team contributes to the “recognition” of refugees in two ways. These ways are analogous to the declarative and constitutive definitions of sovereignty.

First, the Refugee Olympic Team has the potential to significantly contribute to the recognition of refugees as a population. The Olympic Refugee Team has prompted IOC programming on refugees, news media programming on refugees around the world, and the tangible representation of the world’s refugee community through a few individuals. Television coverage of the Olympic Refugee Team’s athletes often centers on their life stories, and their resilience through their experiences fleeing their home country, living in refugee camps, and rebuilding their lives as successful athletes. There is perhaps no greater tool by which the refugee experience is highlighted so prominently in the popular conscience. In this sense, the platform that the IOC creates for refugees makes an invaluable contribution to the refugee community’s recognition by non-refugees around the world, one that could be considered akin to the IOC’s contribution to the declarative sovereignty of Kosovo. By enabling refugees to be noticed throughout the international community, and by giving the refugee community representatives similar to Kolmendi, the Olympic Refugee Team can continue to be a primary vehicle through which refugees gain recognition, support, and admiration.

Second, there is a contribution to refugees’ self-recognition, one that is similar to the contributions Kosovo’s recognition by the IOC made to its constitutive sovereignty. Kolmendi’s comments about Kosovar young people dreaming of representing Kosovo are somewhat similar in spirit to the aforementioned comment that the Refugee Olympic Team would serve as a beacon of hope for refugees. Though this is undoubtedly true, the Refugee Olympic Team also does far more. Just as Kolmendi became a national hero within Kosovo, so too can refugee athletes serve as the unifying symbols of the global collective of refugees. Refugees can find their voice and their community’s aspirations in the refugee athletes, just as those watching athletes of any state can find their own dreams and their nation’s hopes in an Olympic athlete representing their state.

Conclusion : A Monumental Platform for Refugees and Refugee Issues

The Refugee Olympic Team creates a monumental platform for refugee and refugee issues. Just as Kosovo successfully turned to sports when traditional diplomatic channels were closed, so too can the refugee movement continue to find its voice through the Refugee Olympic Team. The Refugee Olympic Team is a powerful vehicle for advancing refugees in two ways, similar to how Kosovo’s membership in UEFA and the IOC contributed to both declarative and constitutive recognition. Externally, the Refugee Olympic Team primes the Olympic Games’ international audience to think far more concretely and substantially about refugee issues; it humanizes the refugee experience, inspires others with the athletes’ stories, brings the needs and contributions of the refugee community to the forefront, and raises public conscienceless that can lead to action. Within the refugee community, the Team and its athletes, in addition to serving as an inspiration, coalesce the otherwise inherently diffuse international refugee community and have the power to contribute to the community’s ability to self-advocate in domestic politics and international organisations.

In the years to come, the Refugee Olympic Team can be an even more powerful platform. The IOC could choose to uplift the voices of refugees by using perhaps the most global megaphone in all of sports– the Olympic Games–, to create powerful opportunities for change within and beyond the refugee community. It can shape the path for those who want to contribute to empowering refugees by highlighting opportunities for impact and the incredible work of refugee resettlement and support organisations. The IOC could also support refugee athletes with even more training resources to help them compete for medals. A refugee athlete winning an Olympic medal would be far more than a statement of athletic excellence; it would be a powerful reminder that refugees achieve distinction in many domains and make remarkable contributions to society. A medal would reinforce what we know to be true: that by devoting more resources to refugee empowerment, the international community can provide more opportunities for refugee greatness to shine.



About Andrew Heinrich: Andrew Heinrich currently serves as Special Projects and Policy aide to Senator Robert Menendez. Andrew founded and runs Project Rousseau, a US-based charity that provides social and academic services to young people from communities in the highest need, including refugee youth. He also serves on the board of HIAS, an international refugee resettlement agency. Andrew’s writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, The New England Journal of Medicine, and in an Oxford University Press edited volume, among other places. Andrew holds degrees from Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard Universities.

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NOTE: The content of this essay reflects only Andrew’s personal views, which were developed before beginning employment with the US government.

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