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Historic Olympics come to an end in style for Team Refugees

Rio’s famed Maracanã stadium lights up for the dazzling closing ceremony. © UNHCR

Rio’s famed Maracanã stadium lights up for the dazzling closing ceremony. © UNHCR

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – In a dazzling celebration of life, Brazil has brought down the curtain on an Olympics which enchanted and inspired millions around the world with powerful stories of triumph over adversity.

The Rio 2016 Games – the first-ever Olympics to witness the participation of a Refugee Olympic Team – came to an end in a colourful explosion of music and dance.

Fittingly for an event which has consistently championed diversity, the closing ceremony paid tribute to the many facets and rich cultural variety of the first South American country to host the Olympics.

Dancing athletes from the 207 delegations, including 10 members of the refugee team from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Syria, entered Rio’s famed Maracanã stadium to the pulsating sound of music combining modern and traditional Brazilian rhythms.

“We will continue to stay at your side.”

A tropical downpour could not dampen the enthusiasm. Flags waved and fireworks exploded as thoughts turned to the future. The Olympic Flag was symbolically passed to Japan, which will hold the next games in 2020.

Both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, which worked together to produce the Refugee Olympic Team, have pledged to remain committed to supporting the athletes’ future and promoting sport among those driven from their homes by conflict and persecution.

A massive Japanese flag marks the symbolic handing over of the Olympic banner to Tokyo, which will host the next Summer Games in 2020. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

A massive Japanese flag marks the symbolic handing over of the Olympic banner to Tokyo, which will host the next Summer Games in 2020. © UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau

In his official closing address at the Olympics, IOC President Thomas Bach said: “Thank you, dear refugee athletes. You have inspired us with your talent and human spirit. You are a symbol of hope to the millions of refugees in the world. We will continue to stay at your side after these Olympic Games.”

Hailing the first-ever refugee team as “true Olympians”, UNHCR Deputy High Commissioner Kelly T. Clements, who attended the closing ceremony, praised its members for helping to change world’s perception of refugees and displaced, now numbering some 65 million.

“This team has captured the world’s attention and in a short period of time, changed the conversation about refugees… There is no doubt that they have left a legacy with their presence at these Olympic Games, but they have also inspired all of us to do more to work for peace and help those forced to flee,” she said.

“These athletes were true Olympians – they cheered on others, they made friends with people from all over the world,” she said. “The IOC and UNHCR will continue to work together to provide opportunities for these refugee athletes and others.”

“It was so amazing to be here.”

The athletes themselves have all spoken of their determination to carry on training and improving.

Earlier in the day Yonas Kinde, the last of the 10 refugee team members to compete, ran in the marathon and fulfilled a lifelong ambition.

‘It was so amazing to be here. It showed respect for refugees. We have to remember that so many people have sacrificed their lives. We have to remember… Today, I did something for refugee people. We are the symbol of a fight. It gives hope to refugees. We have showed that all refugees can do something, if they have a chance,” he told UNHCR after crossing the finish line.

By: Jonathan Clayton and Luiz Godinho