The Olympic Refuge Foundation (ORF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Refugee Olympic Team have received the 2022 Princess of Asturias Award for Sports from the Princess of Asturias Foundation.
The award, which recognises the opportunities that the ORF and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team provide to young, displaced people around the world to access sport, was presented to IOC President Thomas Bach. He was accompanied by Refugee Olympic Team members Eldric Sella (boxing) and Masomah Ali Zada (cycling), two athletes who competed at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
The annual Princess of Asturias Awards were established in 1981 to honour individuals, entities or organisations worldwide who accomplish notable achievements in the sciences, humanities and public affairs.
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The IOC has been aiding refugees through sport since 1994 in partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The IOC created the first-ever Refugee Olympic Team in 2015, and the team took part in the Olympic Games Rio 2016 with 10 athletes – who originally hailed from Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Following the team’s success, a dedicated Olympic Solidarity programme was created to support 56 promising refugee athletes from 13 countries in the build-up to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, where the Refugee Olympic Team participated once again, with 29 athletes competing in 12 sports.
Ahead of the Tokyo Games, Eurosport launched a campaign called Home Crowd – aimed at building support for the Refugee Olympic Team. While the stadiums at the 2016 Games celebrated them, they did not have a home crowd like every other national team. Together the IOC, UNHCR, Discovery+ and Eurosport helped build a fanbase to unite an international community in support of the Refugee Olympic Team containing fans, athletes, national heroes, sporting greats and more.
The IOC has since announced that the team will continue for the Olympic Games in Paris 2024.
The ORF was launched by the IOC in 2017 to help improve the quality of life of disadvantaged children and young people worldwide by developing safe places for them to play and practise sport. The ORF also helps develop sporting activities and social development projects that can be implemented in a sustainable way within these safe environments.
Since its founding, the ORF has created 13 programmes in seven countries (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Jordan, Kenya, Mexico, Rwanda, Turkey and Uganda). As a result, over 200,000 young people have so far benefited from sports programmes designed to improve their well-being and social inclusion. Its goal is to provide one million young people affected by displacement with access to sport by 2024.
Spain’s two-time marathon world champion Abel Antion chairs the jury that picks the recipient of the award each year. They highlighted how the Refugee Olympic Team “merges the highest values of sport, such as integration, education, solidarity and humanity, and represents a message of hope for the world”.
“We are very honoured and humbled to have received the Princess of Asturias Award for Sport tonight in this impressive, traditional ceremony,” said Bach. “When we saw the refugee crisis unfolding in 2015, I thought there must be many young athletes who are dreaming the Olympic dream and who are about to lose their dream. We wanted to help them to make their dreams become a reality.
“And this is why the IOC created the Refugee Olympic Team. These athletes had no flag, no anthem and no home anymore. We gave them the Olympic anthem, the Olympic flag and a home in the Olympic Village. By doing so, we showed the world that refugees are an enrichment to society and sent a strong message of hope to the world.
“After the success of the first-ever IOC Refugee Olympic Team at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, we wanted to strengthen our assistance for all the refugees, not just for the elite athletes. This is why we created the Olympic Refuge Foundation, which runs programmes providing access to sport to young, displaced people and refugees in their host communities across the world, with the goal of reaching one million of them by 2024.”

Refugee Olympic Team marching during the opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics

Image credit: Getty Images

Both Ali Zada and Sella gave speeches at the acceptance of the award, with Ali Zada saying: “With the Refugee Olympic Team, I could represent the world, I could represent peace, and I could represent all the refugees who had to leave their countries.
“We all had to leave our country, but all found the courage to overcome challenges, start all over again and become stronger. The Refugee Olympic Team has a very strong meaning. It sends a message of hope to all refugees and the children in the refugee camps. At the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 a dream came true for me.”
“We came to Tokyo as a team, and this strong bond between us will remain forever,” said Eldric Sella.
“As a boy, I always dreamed to take part in the Olympic Games. I never gave up on that dream, although I had to leave my country and go through some tough times until I could resettle in Uruguay.
“I am so grateful that I was given the opportunity to compete with the best athletes in the world and could show that refugees can achieve a lot if the world believes in them. I have never been so determined to make it to Paris. I will train hard and, most importantly, continue to promote the power of sport and what it can bring to refugee athletes like me, but also to millions of young displaced people around the world.”
“The Olympic Refuge Foundation and the Refugee Olympic Team remind us that sport, elite competition and the Olympic Movement also serve to remember, reflect and alleviate —as far as possible— the harsh reality that so many people in the world live,” said Felipe VI, King of Spain, who was in attendance alongside his family, in his speech.
“The word refugee is one of those terms that provokes deep despair in the listener. Because the world's refugees have lost everything, forced to leave their homes, their countries for reasons beyond their control and always in dramatic circumstances, even endangering their lives.
“We are called to be in solidarity so that they can pursue their personal ambitions. This is what this Foundation and the Refugee Olympic Team do by supporting athletes from various countries around the world so that they can resume their activity in decent conditions and participate in sports competitions.
“We wish every success to Eldric Sella and Masomah Ali Zada, who are with us this afternoon, and whom we encourage to continue fighting for their dreams. And thank you to the President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, for his support, leadership and energy.”
Princess Leonor, the heir presumptive who presented the award, said: “I also care and am very concerned that athletes cannot train or advance their career because they have been forced to flee their country. That is why it is such a great initiative that, thanks to the Refugee Olympic Team and the Olympic Refuge Foundation, athletes in this situation have had the opportunity for some years now to continue their pursuits in order to compete in the Olympic Games.
“We young people are aware that the current situation is not easy, that the world has changed and continues to change, and that the best way to progress is to maintain the enthusiasm to learn, to equip ourselves with responsibility and capacity for effort, to learn from those whom you know, those who do their thing flawlessly, often in silence. For this reason, on days like today, listening to, admiring and acknowledging the excellence of our winners makes us feel that things can always change for the better.”

In Conversation: Alphonso Davies and Refugee Olympic Team swimmer Alaa Maso

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