Sports federations and refugees

July 22, 2021

Support from local, national and international sports federations can make all the difference in the lives of refugee athletes and can be essential for their success.

Refugees are often at the margins of society, which hinders their ability to succeed or flourish in life. Refugee athletes are no different – while all athletes have their own journeys of struggle and hardships, refugee athletes have to deal with both the difficulties of elite athletics and their socio-political positions as refugees.

In such a situation, sport federations can be a beacon of hope for some refugee athletes. They can play an important role in building and supporting refugee athletes and their talents, and ensuring that even though these athletes are in a precarious socio-political position in the world, they are still able to hone their skills and pursue their dreams of being an elite athlete.

Being responsive

This support can come in the form of many actions, big and small. Recently, canoer Saeid Fazloula was announced as part of the Refugee Olympic team, though this was not an easy feat. Though he previously represented Iran, his country of birth, after fleeing the country in 2015 he had to campaign for years to get the right to compete as a refugee.

The fight included rallying the International Canoe Federation to revise its existing regulations, since no rules had existed on how athletes who have had to flee their country for political or religious reasons could partake in events. Fazloula’s campaign was supported by his coaches, the German Canoe Association and the German Olympic Sports Confederation (since he is resettled in Germany).

Fazloula’s case shows the importance of having not only supportive local and national sport federations, but also responsive international federations, whose rules can often make or break athletes’ careers. The International Canoe Federation’s flexibility in changing its rules to support Fazloula’s case shows the federation’s support for other refugee canoers who want to participate in the sport.

Being supportive

Another example of a supportive federation is World Taekwondo. The federation is committed to empowering refugees through taekwondo, for which it set up the Taekwondo Humanitarian Foundation (THF). Through THF, refugees and displaced persons receive taekwondo coaching and are encouraged to compete at World Taekwondo’s events.

Parfait Hakizimana, a Burundian refugee, is part of the first ever Refugee Paralympic Team. A taekwondo champion, he has been a coach with THF for many years. Hakizimana set up a taekwondo school in Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda and has trained over 1,000 refugee children.

Three other taekwondo athletes have also been confirmed as part of the Refugee Olympic Team – Kimia Alizadeh Zonouzi, Dina Pouryounes Langeroudi and Abdullah Sediqi.

World Taekwondo’s support, which includes establishing a whole entity committed to uplifting refugees through taekwondo training, has encouraged these refugee athletes, who are now headed to the biggest events of their lives. Hakizimana’s case reflects the success of both World Taekwondo and THF in supporting refugee athletes.

Looking ahead

Many other sport federations, such as the International Boxing Association (AIBA), World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) and the International Judo Federation (IJF) have made formal commitments to supporting refugees through sport projects and supporting refugee athletes.

Some ways in which local, national and international sporting federations can impact the success that refugee athletes are able to achieve include:

  • Talent identification: working with local organisations to identify talent at the grassroots level.
  • Training support: supporting the training of professional athletes that have fled their home countries and other talent that they have identified at the grassroots level.
  • Flexible rules: easier legal processes so that refugee athletes can continue pursuing their career, even after they have lost their homes, at local, national and international levels.
  • Developing grassroots initiatives: creating mechanisms and opportunities through which refugees can partake in their sport, not only to build elite athletes, but also to provide refugees with an outlet for physical activity and a safe space to meet new people and build relationships.
  • Consultations with refugees: speaking with and consulting refugee athletes to better understand how they can support future athletes in their journeys.

As we near the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, we must recognise the feat of all the athletes, but especially those from the Refugee Olympic and Paralympic Teams. They have overcome challenges to be there, and we must consider how federations can support the dreams and aspirations of many such refugees in the future.

By tariqa Tandon

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