UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, was today awarded the Olympic Cup by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for its work supporting refugees and their host communities through sport, and in promoting the values of the Olympic movement all over the world.
The Olympic Cup was established in 1906 by Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the IOC and father of the modern Olympic movement. It has been awarded every year since then to an organization that has “rendered distinguished service to sport or contributed successfully to the promotion of the Olympic idea”.
Accepting the award, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: “This award is a tribute I want to share with all my colleagues around the world who have gone above and beyond to bring opportunities to displaced people through sport, even in the most challenging circumstances.
“And, of course, it is a tribute to the displaced people and communities that UNHCR serves, who understand the transformative power of sport and have seized the opportunities that have been offered to them.”
IOC President Thomas Bach said: “UNHCR has been a firm advocate for Olympic values. The commitment of the IOC and the entire Olympic movement to supporting refugees is based on our fundamental belief in the power of sport to make the world a better place.”
He added: “UNHCR shares our belief in sport as a force for good in the world. For children and youth uprooted by war or persecution, sport is much more than a leisure activity. It is an opportunity to be included and protected – a chance to heal, develop and grow.”
Sport is a crucial pillar of UNHCR’s mission to protect and empower displaced children and youth, as well as to promote social inclusion and foster good relationships with host communities.
“Sport is not just about the physical benefits,” said Grandi. “It supports physical and mental well-being, teamwork, friendship and respect, and it fosters understanding and positive relations between the forcibly displaced and those who host them. UNHCR’s partnership with the IOC, in striving to achieve these goals, is an effective and cherished one.”
Refugees around the world caught Olympic fever in 2016 when a team of ten refugee athletes took part in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, while two more competed in the Paralympic Games.
Since Rio, refugee athletes have participated in the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Turkmenistan, the World Athletics Championships in London in 2017, and countless other events at the regional, national and international level.
During the 133rd IOC Session in Buenos Aires in 2018, the IOC decided to build on the legacy of Rio and establish a second IOC Refugee Olympic Team to take part in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. This continues the IOC’s commitment to play a part in addressing the global refugee crisis and to convey a message of solidarity and hope to millions of refugees around the world.
Fifty IOC refugee athlete scholarship holders residing in 20 countries and representing 11 sports are striving for an Olympic slot, with the final composition of the refugee team for the Tokyo Games to be announced in June. The disciplines include athletics, badminton, boxing, cycling, judo, karate, air rifle, swimming, taekwondo, weightlifting and wrestling.
Yiech Pur Biel, a South Sudanese refugee who competed in the 800 metres in Rio and who has set his sights on a second Olympic appearance in Tokyo, said: “The support I have had over the years from UNHCR and the IOC has been amazing. It has given me the chance to succeed as an athlete, taken me to new countries, and brought me new friends.
“As a result, I have fulfilled many of my dreams and I continue to pursue more. I would love to see every refugee – boys and girls, men and women – get the chance to take part in different kinds of sport, no matter where they are in the world.”
Yusra Mardini, who also competed at Rio as a swimmer and whose perilous refugee journey became known around the world, said: “Sport literally saved my life, so I believe firmly that everyone should have the chance to participate in some form of sport. Sport has benefits way beyond health: it sets your mind free from all your worries, it makes you set yourself personal goals, it teaches respect for others and it helps you to bond with strangers.
“As a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, I would love to see all refugees involved in sport, and because of this the work of UNHCR and the IOC is priceless.”
UNHCR’s partnership with the IOC goes back more than a quarter of a century. The two organizations established a Cooperation Agreement in 1994, and since then they have worked together in more than 50 countries to bring opportunities to refugees at every level through sport, from grassroots to the elite.
In 2017, the IOC launched the Olympic Refuge Foundation (ORF), which aims to create safe, basic and accessible sports facilities and programmes for young refugees, forcibly displaced young people and their host communities. The foundation is chaired by Bach, with Grandi as vice-chair.
Last month at the Global Refugee Forum in Geneva, UNHCR and the IOC announced a new Sports Coalition to provide young refugees with opportunities through sport, increasing their access to facilities, events and competitions at all levels.