For refugee children and youth, watching elite sport is often an escape, a way to forget for a short time some of the challenges of displacement, through watching their sporting heroes in action. Recently, the possibility to compete in sport at the highest level has become a reality for refugees. Professional sport is increasingly providing opportunities to participate at the elite level and in the process opportunities to access livelihood and other opportunities, and identify pathways into further education.
This shift began with the first IOC Refugee Olympic Team, composed of ten refugee athletes, for the Olympic Games Rio 2016, with the aim of raising awareness of the scale of the global refugee crisis. Competing under the Olympic Flag, the athletes' stories caught the imagination of the global sport watching public and have been an inspiration for young refugees around the world. Also in 2016, the International Paralympic Committee fielded and Independent Paralympic Team with 2 refugee athletes at Rio Paralympic. Both the IOC and IPC fielded refugee teams at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Following the example of the International Olympic Committee’s refugee Olympic Team other sports associations and federations have introduced refugee athletes and teams into major sporting events. Refugees have participated in Judo and Taekwondo tournaments and events, weightlifting, boxing and in athletics and other sporting disciplines. In June 2023 the European Olympic Committees supported a refugee team to compete at the Kraków-Małopolska 2023 European Games, the first such team to compete at a continental Games.
The IOC, IPC, sports federations, national Olympic committees and UNHCR continue to work to identify talented refugee athletes. Individual refugees who are of international competition standard in an Olympic or Paralympic discipline should contact the sporting federation in their country of residence for more information. There are currently 53 Refugee Athlete Scholarship-holders hoping to be selected for the IOC Refugee Olympic Team for Paris 2024. They are from 12 countries, live in 19 host countries, and compete in 13 sports.