We Asked Syria’s First Olympic Medalist: Should Refugees Be Invited to Compete in Rio?

An invitation to displaced athletes to enter the Olympics inspired feel-good headlines, but critics say an all-refugee team is unrealistic.
Ludwig Banach of the U.S., left, wrestles Joseph Atiyeh of Syria during the 1984 Summer Olympics. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Dec 22, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Shaya Tayefe Mohajer is TakePart's News Editor.

At first glance, Syrian American Joseph Atiyeh thought the cable-news report looked like so many others that have aired since ISIS and civil war ravaged parts of the Middle East. As the cameras rolled, desperate men and women fled on foot through Europe, with children and possessions in tow.

Then a familiar face haunted the screen.

“I saw my wrestling coach’s son. He was going into Germany—swear to God it was him,” Atiyeh said, before a sharp moment of grief took his breath away. After a pause, the former Olympian let loose with frustrations over what has become of Syria, the country he once competed for, the country that owes its first-ever Olympic medal to Atiyeh’s efforts on the wrestling mat.

“Those radicals, Assad—they victimize the people. You only live if they allow you to live. What the hell—what kind of life is that?” the 58-year-old said in a recent interview with TakePart.

When Atiyeh won silver during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, wrestling in the 100-kilogram class, the Louisiana State University–trained jock quickly became a sports hero in Syria. Wrestling is revered in parts of the Middle East, and though Pennsylvania-raised Atiyeh spoke little Arabic, the sport helped him build a deep connection with the country he was born in through victory tours, where Syrian people lavished him with affection. In more than 20 trips back, he worshipped at ancient Christian churches and lunched with former President Hafez al-Assad.

Syrian athletes who might want to follow in Atiyeh’s footsteps to the Olympic medal podium would certainly face a rough time these days—and not just because the head of the Syrian Olympic Committee was refused a visa to attend the 2012 games in London.

Nearly five years of bloody civil war has displaced half the population of Syria, and that’s part of the reason the International Olympic Committee announced this fall that it would allow refugees to participate without their home country’s involvement.

“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” for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janiero, IOC President Thomas Bach told the United Nations General Assembly in October.

The organization pledged to invest $2 million in aid for sports and humanitarian needs in five European countries affected by the flood of refugees. In Austria, the funding is going toward sports projects in refugee camps. In Belgium, the Red Cross will supply sports equipment to 30 refugee holding centers. Similar programs are afoot in Bulgaria and Denmark.

Slovenian Olympic Academy head Alēs Šolar says about $30,000 in funds have purchased water, food, warm blankets, and clothes for refugees, and the next phase is to prepare activities to integrate refugees “into sport and society.”

“With our special activities, we are going to present to them our culture, the Olympics, sport, and national values,” Šolar said. As yet, Slovenia doesn’t have any refugees who have expressed interest in participating in Rio in 2016, “but we are prepared, and we are going to provide help for them,” Šolar said. TakePart’s queries to the four other national Olympic committees didn’t turn up any refugee athletes vying for a shot at competing in the Summer Games either.

Olympic officials have long championed an ethos of rising above political conflicts that divide nations and competing on the level playing field of sport—a populist departure from stalemates of diplomacy. In 1980, the United States may not have engaged in open dialogue with Cold War rivals, but it was the talk of two superpowers when the American hockey team beat the former Soviet Union’s team to take home the gold medal that year.

University of Lausanne Professor Jean-Loup Chappelet, who has written books about the Olympics, says it is unusual for the IOC to give financial support, though in the past, it has helped with aid following major disasters.

“It would be interesting to see in a few months’ time what really happened on the ground with these funds,” Chappelet said.

The push to preserve sports in the face of disaster and destruction, and to find ways to include athletes from war-torn nations, is not without precedent. There were Iraqi rowers who trained on the Tigris River, gliding past bombed-out buildings, with aims to compete in London’s 2012 games, but they fell short during the qualifiers. Of the eight Iraqi competitors who made it to the Olympic Village, none stood on the medal stand for their respective sports.

A more outspoken critic of the Olympics says such stories make for good human-interest headlines but also serve to hide the bad headlines about the games, such as bribery and corruption scandals or the battles for lucrative broadcast rights.

“I saw this as an empty gesture, a cynical move, a public relations ploy,” said Helen Lenskyj, a University of Toronto sociology professor who authored Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics, and Activism. “Realistically, refugees have been on the move for months and months, if not years. It’s cynical and unrealistic, the notion that someone who is fighting for their life would have the luxury of training for the most elite competition in the world. It just cannot happen.”

Syrian wrestler Atiyeh can’t imagine that happening either. “How the hell are you gonna focus on competing athletically when you don’t know what’s going on in your own country?” he wondered.

After his Olympic triumph, Atiyeh met locals on prolonged victory tours through Syria, learning about the culture his family left behind when he was still a toddler.

Atiyeh went on to become something of a darling of Middle East politics for a time.

Reporters tagged along in 1989 when he went on a pilgrimage to Maaloula, Syria, where locals still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus Christ spoke. At St. Sergius, one of the world’s oldest churches, Atiyeh prayed alongside Peggy Say for the release of her brother, Terry Anderson, The Associated Press’ former Middle East bureau chief, who was taken hostage in Beirut in 1985 and held until 1991.

When global powers brokered Middle East peace, if all too briefly, with the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993, Atiyeh was in attendance at the ceremony in Washington, D.C., a witness to the moment the world will remember as the time Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin publicly shook the hand of Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

At the time, Atiyeh told The Morning Call, “One of the good things about peace in the Middle East is that the government will be able to use the money for more humane things.... That’s what peace can create for the Middle East region, instead of emphasizing war.”

These days, Atiyeh understandably has less optimism about the future of his motherland. He can’t imagine a Syrian athlete going to the Olympics or having the ability to train enough to win a medal on the world stage.

Least likely of all, perhaps, is the idea of going back to celebrate the win in a country that has lost so much.

“The refugees, the day they get out of Syria, God bless them,” Atiyeh said.