“To treat me equally, you have to treat me differently”
This was the opening line to my winning Diversity & Equality Civil Service Award submission in 2009.
At the time, I was approaching my peak weight and I was probably at the peak of my career in the Civil Service. The work that I did with the DWP Move On Refugee Team, in Glasgow, remains one of my proudest achievements. At the heart of our work and the quote lies a simple premise.
Sometimes, giving people equal rights is not enough. Sometimes, we need to do more than provide an equal footing and sometimes we need to deliver something innovative and different from what already exists.
This was true then for our ground-breaking Move On team and more so now, with the wonderful inclusion of a Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016. Ten athletes from four war torn countries now compete together under the Olympic Flag, a symbol that celebrates the unification of the five continents and which represents colours from all of the flags of all of the participating countries. The Refugee Olympic Team represents 59 million displaced people and they represent hope for a better future.
Cheating, corruption and conditions have arguably all cast a shadow on the Olympic Games, but in the Refugee Olympic Team, the International Olympic Committee have created something that we can all rally behind at Rio 2016. They have provided us with an opportunity to show our support for a crisis that has left so many homeless, helpless and hopeless.
They have also created something that represents the true values of the Olympics: Friendship, Respect, Excellence, Sportsmanship. The Refugee Olympic Team embodies all that is great about sport and humankind.
Unfortunately, however, there are some who are arguing that these athletes have no place at the Olympics and that they should simply be given the opportunity to qualify for the right to represent their new home nations. They are asking why they should be treated differently (or given special treatment) and they are suggesting that these athletes are not good enough,
However, it is my belief that this group of exceptional athletes deserve our admiration and our respect. For an athlete, competing at the Olympics must be the greatest honour and possibly the greatest challenge, but the Refugee Olympic Team have overcome even greater challenges, not just to qualify but to survive.
Take Yusra Mardini, the 18 year old Syrian born swimmer. A gifted athlete in Syria, she was being primed for success, but events in Syria took over and last August, she found herself in a six man dinghy with nineteen other people floating in the Aegean Sea. The motor had given in and the dinghy was taking on water. Yusra, her sister and two men jumped out, but not to flee. Instead they got behind the dinghy and began pushing.
Eventually the men gave in, and for three and a half hours in freezing waters, Yusra and her sister continued to push on. They were driven into fleeing Syria, driven into the cold waters and now their drive would give hope to those on board that dinghy and would save 20 lives. Fast forward one year and Yusra now gives hope to the world’s refugees. She and the other members of the Refugee Olympic Team are showing the world the resilience, courage, strength and talents that refugees possess. This year their number is 10, but in years to come, how many more talented, but currently displaced kids will be inspired and empowered to chase an Olympic dream?
That’s why I will be cheering for the Refugee Olympic Team in addition to supporting Team GB
Will you join me?