Sarah and Ysra Mardini had to swim for their lives last August when the boat that was taking them from Turkey to Greece began taking on water as they crossed the Mediterranean. The refugees were fleeing the devastating civil war in Syria.
Now the two sisters have a chance to represent the Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes (ROA) in the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro after Olympic officials announced 43 potential candidates Wednesday.
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Speaking in Switzerland, IOC president Thomas Bach said the team will ultimately be whittled down to between five and 10 athletes who will compete in Rio.
“By welcoming the team of Refugee Olympic Athletes to the Olympic Games Rio 2016, we want to send a message of hope for all refugees in our world,” Bach told reporters.
“Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic flag and with the Olympic Anthem.”
No details were given on where the potential athletes come from or which sports they will compete in. The International Olympic Committee will name the final list of athletes during an executive board meeting in June.
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Bach said candidates for the Olympic team will be selected based on their eligibility, nationality and refugee status.
“We will have to see what qualifications they can achieve,” he said. “My gut feeling is this team will end up with between five and 10 athletes.”
The IOC will appoint officials, coaches and other personnel for the team and will also provide team uniforms for the athletes.
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Bach said Team ROA will be treated like all other teams that are represented by national Olympic committees and will live with other athletes in the Olympic Village.
The refugees receive financial and other assistance from the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity program and their expenses will be covered. The IOC says in the event an athlete wins a medal, the Olympic flag will be raised and the Olympic Anthem will be played at the podium.
Sarah and Ysra Mardini, who fled Syria in August and now train in Germany, are two Team ROA hopefuls, according to the Associated Press. When their boat, which carried 20 people, began taking on water, the two sisters jumped and swam to safety on the Greek island of Lesbos.
“I was not afraid of dying, because if anything happened I could swim to arrive at the island. But the problem was that I had 20 persons with me,” Sarah said. “In Syria I worked in a swimming pool to watch people not drowning, so if I let anyone drown or die I would not forgive myself.”
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The sisters eventually made it to Austria and then Germany before moving into a refugee shelter in Berlin where they were connected with a swimming club through a local charity.
Two martial artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yolande Mabika and Popole Misenga, also have dreams of competing in judo at the Rio Games.
“I cannot fight for my country. I will fight for the Olympics. I will fight for all refugees in the world, to defend all refugees in the world,” Mabika told The Guardian in early January.
Mabika and Misenga both made asylum bids while competing in the 2013 World Judo Championships in Rio and are training together for the 2016 games.
“Judo is my life. It helped me escape war, to take another path,” Mabika said.
*With files from the Associated Press