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Rio Olympics 2016: Real spirit of Games lives in refugees

By Jim White in Rio

Olympic refugee team member Yusra Mardini swims practice laps at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium. Photo / AP
Olympic refugee team member Yusra Mardini swims practice laps at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium. Photo / AP

'It's very cool," said Yusra Mardini, long after she had won her heat in the 100m butterfly. "It is an incredible feeling to be here."

For the 18-year-old from Damascus, that was no exaggeration. As she stood at the side of the Olympic pool in Rio, slowly making her way past 100 television reporters anxious to elicit her views, it would have been no surprise if her mind drifted back to last June.

Then, she was cast adrift in the Mediterranean, swimming for her life. And here she was swimming for fun, in the most rarefied company in the world. She is right: her appearance in Rio is a tale that properly insists on the adjective "incredible".

"I'm really lucky to be here to swim with champions," she said. "That feels so amazing."

Mardini's is the most extraordinary tale of these Games, a story of such spirit and uplift, that speaks to the very purpose of sport.

A promising swimmer in her native Syria, backed by the country's Olympic programme, she had trained for much of her youth in a pool in Damascus, her ambition one day to represent her country in the Games.

But as her homeland imploded around her, even going for a swim became fraught with danger. After the roof of her training pool was blown off in bomb blast, swimming became an impossibility. Her dreams appeared over.

And as her neighbourhood became a death zone, she and her sister were encouraged to join the exodus heading for Europe. After venturing across Lebanon and Turkey, in June last year the sisters boarded a smugglers' boat heading for Lesbos.

The boat they were on, a dinghy meant to carry no more than six passengers, was rammed with 25 desperate refugees fleeing misery. Like many a craft making the hazardous journey across the sea, it was soon in trouble.

When it was decided that some of the passengers had to jump to lighten the payload, Yusra and her sister were two of only four on board who could swim. They leapt in, and pushed the dinghy for 5km until they reached the coast, saving the lives of those who remained on the vessel.

"I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea because I am a swimmer," Yusra has said, with characteristic self-deprecation, of her determination to keep going.

Refugee Olympic team's Yusra Mardini is welcomed at the Olympic village. Photo / AP
Refugee Olympic team's Yusra Mardini is welcomed at the Olympic village. Photo / AP

After a 25-day journey north, she arrived in Berlin last August. There, she made her way to the pool Hitler had commissioned for the 1936 Games. Her skill in the water was soon noted by a coach who began to work with her, thinking she might make the 2020 Games in Tokyo. She worked prodigiously, getting up at 4am to train before school, determined to make the most of the opportunity she had been gifted.

"When my sister wants to encourage me she says: show them what a refugee can do," she explained.

And when her coach heard that the IOC was putting a team of refugees together for Rio, he proposed that she should be selected. She arrived in Rio, part of a 10-strong team of the dispossessed. On Friday night she was in the Maracana at the opening ceremony, thrilled to walk behind the refugee banner, relishing the warm reception.

"It was really cool, the way everyone welcomed us," she said.

In truth, that was the highlight of her Games: Mardini is not going to be stepping on to any podium here. She was placed in the slowest heat of her discipline, among Erica the Eels from Qatar, Yemen, Rwanda and Grenada.

But when she walked into the pool she was cheered to the echo, her presence there a wonderful moment of humanity in an event increasingly dominated by commerce. Young, photogenic, endlessly enthusiastic, she is a potent symbol of sport's proper purpose.

As she swam, a group of spectators in the stand waved a banner that read "Vai Yusra". And go she did, turning first then overcoming a late burst from Oreoluwa Cherebin of Grenada alongside her to win her heat , to huge acclaim.

Sadly, her time of 1 min 09.21sec placed her 41st out of 45 competitors, way behind the fastest qualifier, Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, who finished in 56.26sec. She will not be participating any further in the discipline. Instead she will turn her attentions to the 100m freestyle heats on Tuesday.

But for Mardini, winning is not the point. Asked by a German reporter if she was irritated by the constant attention she is getting - it took her more than an hour to make her way to the changing room after her event had finished - she smiled broadly.

"This is not difficult," she said. "What everyone in the Refugee Team is saying is that they did not stop on their refugee trip. That this is not the end."

Indeed, you suspect that for Yusra Mardini, this is just the beginning.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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