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The team with a difference at the Tokyo Olympics

Yusra Mardini of the Refugee Olympic team at the 2016 Rio Olympics
Yusra Mardini of the Refugee Olympic team at the 2016 Rio Olympics
D Dharmendra
SENIOR ANALYST

The refugee team at the Tokyo Olympics is unique among the 207 teams, of which 206 are national teams. 29 athletes constitute the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) Refugee Olympic Team Tokyo 2020, also known as the EOR from the French name: Équipe Olympique des Réfugiés. The 29 athletes are spread over 12 sports from athletics to wrestling.

Of the 29 athletes, seven are in athletic events, six in judo and the remaining 16 are in the other six events. Every one of the 29 athletes has an inspiring story and an extraordinary path to make it to Tokyo. This is the second time the IOC has had a refugee team at the Olympics, having had one at the Rio Olympics with a smaller contingent.

Although multiple members of the EOR made progress in their respective sports at the Rio Olympics, none of them medaled. The Tokyo Olympics could be different with athletes competing across more sports. Of these, judo, shooting and athletics are but three of the medal opportunities, given the number of athletes in each.

READ: Olympian Nisha Millet excited to see growth in Indian men’s swimming but wants women to match

On that note, here are two incredible stories from the EOR team - those of Luna Solomon and Tachlowini Gabriyesos.

The shooting team member of the EOR, Luna Solomon in particular, has multiple unbelievable stories in her journey to the Tokyo Olympics. For starters, she had never even attempted sports shooting before 2019. Luna was then recruited by the Make a Mark project set up by Niccolo Campriani.

Niccolo Campriani has won four Olympic medals - three gold and one silver in shooting events. Niccolo and Abhinav Bindra's professional lives have crossed each other over the past decade as they have competed for medals in the 10m air rifle event.

When Abhinav Bindra won India's first-ever individual gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Campriani was 12th and didn't qualify for the final. When the Italian won his silver at the 2012 London Olympics, Abhinav was 16th and didn't qualify for the final. Campriani has also competed and won Olympic gold in the 10m air rifle and 50m rifle (3 positions) events.

However, the Tokyo Olympics has brought their lives together in an unusual way.

Abhinav Bindra has been a big supporter of the Make a Mark project and some of his part in their journey is showcased in the Taking Refuge video series, from the Olympics Channel. Two of the shooters and their coach, Niccolo from the Make a Mark project, visited the Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance Centre in Bengaluru in 2019. Luna Solomon wasn't part of the group as she was on a break.

Luna Solomon would not have made it to the Tokyo Olympics if it had happened in 2020 as per the original plan as she took a break to have a baby. Amazingly, she got back to shooting and will be at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Tachlowini Gabriyesos is also of Eritrean origin, like Luna Solomon. Only 23, he has competed in distance running events over the past five years or so, after making his way to Israel as a refugee. Initially, Gabriyesos tried competing in shorter distance events, especially the 5,000m, but his times weren't good enough to make the Olympic standards.

In something of a recurring theme among members of the refugee team in particular, Tachlowini Gabriyesos took another life-changing chance. He made an inspired switch to the marathon. In only his second attempt at a marathon, Gabriyesos ran 2:10:55 at an event in Israel to meet the Tokyo Olympic qualifying standard for the marathon.

The marathon time of Tachlowini Gabriyesos is better than the current national records of several countries including India. That time may still not be enough to earn him a medal at the Tokyo Olympics. However, he could improve in his third attempt at the marathon and may have yet another life-changing experience in Tokyo.

After all, Kipchoge's winning time at the Rio Olympics is his slowest marathon till date. And the 3rd place finisher at the Rio Olympics marathon was not much faster than what Tachlowini Gabriyesos has run till date. The Tokyo Olympics is expected to have warm weather much like the Rio Olympics. So his chances aren't all that bad, despite him being ranked over 500 in the marathon in the World Athletics rankings for 2021.

The Olympics are memorable for reasons beyond just performance and the Tokyo Olympics promises to kindle hope in both present and future athletes.

Also read: India at Olympics - Schooting Schedule

Edited by Sudeshna Banerjee
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