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Building the first Refugee Paralympic Team

Copyrights: Getty Images; Ileana Rodriguez swimming for Team USA

Building the first Refugee Paralympic Team

Six refugee athletes will participate at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. To find out more, sportanddev spoke to Ileana Rodriguez, Chef de Mission of the Refugee Paralympic Team.

Ileana Rodriguez has many identities. She is a Paralympic swimmer, who represented Team USA at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. She is an accessibility consultant and an architect who builds spaces that are inclusive for all. She is also a refugee, who left Cuba for the USA when she was young.

Now, Ileana is the Chef de Mission for the Paralympic Refugee Team for the upcoming Tokyo Games. “I have a team behind me from the IPC [International Paralympic Committee], which is wonderful. My biggest role is to keep the communication with the athletes, as much as possible, and try to keep them engaged [in this process].” As the communication channel between the IPC and the refugee athletes, she ensures the smooth running of the first Refugee Paralympic Team.

The first Refugee Paralympic Team

In Rio, one refugee and one asylee athlete made up a two-person Independent Paralympic Team, but they were not part of a coordinated team in the lead up to the Games. Inspired by the overwhelming response from fans and media alike, and with more financial support this time around, the IPC decided on a formal refugee team with six athletes for Tokyo. The first Refugee Paralympic Team, announced today, has athletes hailing from Syria, Burundi, Afghanistan, and Iran.

Every Paralympian has a story of adversity and resilience, but even more so for these six athletes. As Ileana explains: “All Paralympians have a story of struggle. But with refugees, you add another level of complexity to this. Seeing their attitude, and seeing how they portray their stories of hope, their courage, it is mind-blowing, even for an athlete like myself.”

Building a team spirit

Creating a team spirit for a group of athletes hailing from different parts of the world and speaking different languages has not been easy – all the athletes are different. But their shared life experiences, as Para-athletes and refugees, bond them together. They have been in touch with each other individually, and once the team is announced, Ileana hopes they will get to know each other more.

But feeling part of a team also requires looking the part of a team. ASICS is official supplier of the team to design and provide their kits. As Ileana explains: “The uniform is for the Refugee [Paralympic] Team – it is not a general IPC uniform. This is nice because every country has its own team uniform, and for these athletes to feel like they belong to a team, you need to have that as well, and give the same relevance you give to any other team.” These athletes are unable to compete under the flags of their home or host countries, which makes this particularly important.

Supportive partnerships

Other sponsors have been equally important to help with equipment, training, coaching and additional needs. For example, Airbnb has been the lead supporter of the Refugee Paralympic Team since 2020 providing important support for the athletes. As Ileana explains:

“This has been a game changer. If you can only imagine living in conditions that are really rough, to have such good support has made a huge difference for them.   It helps them focus on full-time training for the upcoming Games. [This support] means that the athletes are focused on what they’re supposed to do, and train even better.”  

The company has also created a new department dedicated to supporting the athletes and this partnership. Several athletes have also hosted Airbnb’s Online Experiences, where the athletes share their stories interactively in online forums while earning a small honorarium.

Another important partner for the success of the Refugee Paralympic Team has been UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. The UNHCR has been supporting the IPC with their communications around the Refugee Paralympic Team, helping build connections with refugees and understand their requirements. The IPC has also managed to form connections with some of the UNHCR’s high-profile supporters, who have been able to amplify the message of this first Refugee Paralympic Team around the globe.   One of the members of the Refugee Paralympic Team, swimmer Abbas Karimi, has been named a High-Profile Supporter of the UNHCR.

A fitting homage

For Ileana, supporting refugees is in line with Paralympic ideals. As she points out, the first Paralympic Games were established by Ludwig Guttmann, who was a refugee himself. Guttmann, a Jewish doctor, fled Nazi Germany for Britain before the start of the Second World War. For Ileana, it is fitting that the IPC supports refugee athletes, to honour their founder and his own history.

Defining success

So, what would success mean for this team? For Ileana, it isn’t just about the medals: “I think our first success is the fact that we have six athletes that are going to Tokyo.” Ileana also notes that a point of success is “having them feel like they’re a team and that they belong, which is so important for an athlete.”

Success also means getting their stories out there. The one thing these athletes have in common is that they all have amazing stories, and they want the world to know them. Currently, there are 82 million displaced people in the world, and 12 million of them have disabilities, and most of the time they are faceless. The members of this team, however, put a face to the number and a story to the statistic. “There are refugees out there, who we often forget about, and we have to have a voice for them,” says Ileana. “This is an opportunity for them to have a voice.”

And when it comes to medals, Ileana says, “If you’re in the field of play, you’ve got a chance. At this level of competition, everyone has a chance to win a medal!” A couple of the athletes on the team are among the top ranked athletes in their events.  Though she hopes there may be a medal or two for the team, the formation of this team and getting these refugee athletes to the Paralympics is already a big win.

Looking forward

Ileana hopes that in the long run the world is stable and peaceful enough that there is no need for anyone to flee their country, and that they do not need a Refugee Paralympic Team. She knows, however, that this may be too idealistic.

In the short term, she hopes that the Tokyo Games are successful for the team, and that this legacy can continue on at Paris 2024. For now, however, Ileana, along with the six Refugee Paralympic Team athletes, is taking things one step at a time and is focussed on the Games in August.


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Wednesday, June 30, 2021 - 09:33