Yusra Mardini
AP

From Syria to Sudan: Refugee athletes train for Olympic team

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LONDON (AP) — They’ve fled war and violence in the Middle East and Africa. They’ve crossed treacherous seas in small dinghies and lived in dusty refugee camps.

They include a teenage swimmer from Syria, long-distance runners from South Sudan and judo and taekwondo competitors from Congo, Iran and Iraq.

They are striving to achieve a common goal: To compete in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Not for their home countries, but as part of the first ever team of refugee athletes.

A group of 43 displaced men and women, who range in age from 17 to 30 and have escaped conflicts in their homelands, are being considered for selection to the team called “Refugee Olympic Athletes.”

Prompted by the plight of millions of migrants and refugees across the world, the International Olympic Committee is creating a small team of refugees who will compete in Rio under the Olympic flag.

In what will surely be one of the emotional highlights of the opening ceremony, the team will march together into the Maracana Stadium on Aug. 5 behind the white flag with the five Olympic rings. They will walk in just ahead of the team from Brazil, the host nation that marches last among the 206 National Olympic Committees in the athletes’ parade.

The refugee athletes will live in the Olympic Village with the other teams. The IOC will supply them with team uniforms, coaches and technical officials. The Olympic anthem will be played if any of the athletes wins a gold medal.

The plan was first announced by the IOC at the United Nations last October amid the still-continuing influx of migrants and refugees, many from Syria, into Europe. The IOC set up a $2 million fund for refugees and asked national Olympic committees to identify any displaced athletes in their countries who might be able to reach Olympic standard.

Pere Miro, the IOC’s deputy director general for relations with the Olympic movement, has been the point man in creating the team. Of the 43 athletes selected as contenders for the team, more than half are runners from central and western Africa, Miro said.

“I was touched by the personal story of each one,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But I also was really touched by how much sport means in their lives, not only for the 43, but for all those I met.”

IOC President Thomas Bach said he expects between five and 10 athletes will make the team. Miro put the figure at between five and seven. The final selection will be announced by the IOC at its next executive board meeting in June.

“We want to send a message of hope to all the refugees of the world,” Bach said.

Miro said 23 of the candidates fled conflicts in Africa, including South Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Mali. A handful of others left Syria, with a few from Iran and Iraq. In addition to track and field, some of the athletes compete in swimming, judo, taekwondo and shooting.

The IOC has already publicly identified three athletes under consideration: 17-year-old Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini, female Iranian taekwondo athlete Raheleh Asemani, and male judoka Popole Misenga of Congo. Mardini is training in Germany, Asemani in Belgium and Misenga in Brazil.

Mardini and her older sister, Sarah, were on an inflatable boat with other refugees making the perilous trip from Turkey to Greece a few months ago when their small dinghy started taking on water in the Aegean Sea. Most of the refugees on the overcrowded boat couldn’t swim. So the sisters and three others who were also good swimmers jumped into the water. For three hours, they clung onto ropes hanging from the side and helped guide the boat to the Greek island of Lesbos.

The Mardini sisters eventually made it to Germany, where a local charity put them in touch with the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 swimming club in Berlin, based near their refugee center. They have been training at the pool, which was built for the 1936 Olympics, and Yusra – a butterfly specialist – was selected as a possible member of the Olympic team.

Asemani left Iran in 2012 for reasons she has not disclosed and arrived in Belgium, where she works for the postal service and trains with Belgium’s national taekwondo team. Fighting under the World Taekwondo Federation flag at the European Olympic qualifying tournament in Istanbul, she clinched a spot for the Rio Games. It’s possible she could compete for Belgium if she is granted citizenship.

“It has been such a hard journey. I was lost,” Asemani said on the WTF website. “Many times in my head I thought it would not happen because of politics, visa problems, lack of money and I couldn’t travel to (many) ranking events. … Rio is a dream for me. Hope has carried me to the Olympics. Now I will give all I have to win.”

Misenga and Yolande Mabika fled Congo three years ago and sought asylum in Brazil during the 2013 World Judo Championships in Rio. They have been training with the Brazilian judo federation.

“I’ve seen too much war, too much death,” Misenga told The Guardian newspaper. “I want to stay clean so I can do my sport. I represent everyone. I’ll get a medal for all refugees.”

The largest number of potential Olympic athletes was drawn from the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) from the border with South Sudan, a five-year-old country that has been wracked by civil war since 2013. Tens of thousands have died and at least 2 million people have been displaced from their homes.

The sprawling Kakuma camp houses about 180,000 refugees, mainly from South Sudan, but also from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea and Uganda.

“I was touched in seeing how the people live in this camp,” said Miro, who traveled to Kakuma in January. “It’s in the middle of nowhere. They have nothing to do. The main activity that keeps them motivated and alive is sport.”

Tegla Loroupe, the former Kenyan world record-holder in the women’s marathon, went to the Kakuma camp to hold tryouts and identify the most talented runners. Twenty-three were selected and transferred to Loroupe’s training center near Nairobi.

Speaking to the AP by telephone on Tuesday from the center, Loroupe said the athletes include an 800-meter runner, a marathoner and several 5,000- and 10,000-meter athletes. She said she expects eight to qualify for the Olympics and will accompany them to Rio for the occasion.

“This is something special,” Loroupe said. “Everyone can be a refugee, now they have this incredible opportunity to stand out. They want to be ambassadors.”

Miro said he doubts any of the refugee athletes will win medals in Rio, though that is not really the main point. The powerful symbolism of the refugees’ mere presence at the games is what counts the most.

“They will raise attention around the world,” Miro said. “We hope the world will get the message. We can show that sport and the Olympic principles are something to believe in.”

MORE: IOC identifies 43 potential refugee Rio Olympic athletes

U.S. men off to best French Open start in 24 years

Sebastian Korda
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The last time U.S. men started this well at the French Open, Sebastian Korda wasn’t alive and his dad had yet to win a Grand Slam singles title.

Eight American men are into the second round at Roland Garros, the largest contingent in the last 64 since 1996. No nation will have more. Astonishing, given U.S. men went a collective 1-9 at the 2019 French Open.

Back in 1996, nine American men won first-round matches. That group included Pete SamprasAndre AgassiJim Courier and Michael Chang (in Sampras’ deepest run in Paris, to the semifinals).

Clay has long been kryptonite for this generation of Americans — the last U.S. man to make a Roland Garros quarterfinal was Agassi in 2003.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

This group includes veterans like Jack Sock, who swept countryman Reilly Opelka 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 on Monday. Sock, 28, was once ranked eighth in the world.

He then dropped out of the rankings entirely, missing time due to injury and going 10 months between tour-level match wins. He’s now at No. 310 and preparing to play No. 3 Dominic Thiem in the second round.

Then there’s 35-year-old John Isner, the big server who swept a French wild card in round one. Isner, the highest seeded U.S. man at No. 21, has posted some decent Roland Garros results, reaching the fourth round three times.

There are new faces, too. Taylor Fritz is seeded 27, aged 22 and in an open section of the draw to make his first Grand Slam fourth round.

On Monday, 20-year-old Korda became the youngest U.S. man to win a French Open main-draw match since an 18-year-old Andy Roddick beat Chang in 2001.

He is the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda and brother of the world’s second- and 22nd-ranked female golfers (Nelly and Jessica), next faces Isner.

So far, Sebastian’s biggest feats have been winning the 2018 Australian Open junior title and, in his only golf tournament, beating both of his sisters when he was 11.

An American man is already guaranteed to make the third round — Korda faces Isner on Thursday.

“I grew up on the clay,” Korda said, “so I know how to play on it a little bit.”

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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Novak Djokovic rolls at French Open; top women escape

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Novak Djokovic began what could be a march to his 18th Grand Slam title, sweeping Swede Mikael Ymer 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in the French Open first round on Tuesday.

The top seed Djokovic lost just seven points in the first set. He gets Lithuanian Ricardas Berankis in the second round in a half of the draw that includes no other man with French Open semifinal experience.

Djokovic had plenty going for him into Roland Garros, seeking to repeat his 2016 run to the title. The chilly weather is similar to four years ago.

As is Djokovic’s form. His only loss in 2020 was when he was defaulted at the U.S. Open for hitting a ball in anger that struck a linesperson in the throat.

Djokovic got a break with the draw when No. 3 seed Dominic Thiem was put in No. 2 Rafael Nadal‘s half. The Serbian also won his clay-court tune-up event in Rome, where he received warnings in back-to-back matches for breaking a racket and uttering an obscenity.

“I don’t think that [the linesperson incident] will have any significant negative impact on how I feel on the tennis court,” Djokovic said before Roland Garros. “I mean, I won the tournament in Rome just a week later after what happened in New York.

“I really want to be my best version as a player, as a human being on the court, and win a tennis match. Because of the care that I have for that, I sometimes express my emotions in good way or maybe less good way.”

If Djokovic can lift the Coupe des Mousquetaires two Sundays from now, he will move within two of Roger Federer‘s career Slams record. Also notable: He would keep Nadal from tying Federer’s record and head into the Australian Open in January, his signature Slam, with a chance to match Nadal at 19.

FRENCH OPEN DRAWS: Men | Women | TV Schedule

Earlier Tuesday, No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Sofia Kenin each needed three sets to reach the second round.

The Czech Pliskova rallied past Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif 6-7 (9), 6-2, 6-4. Pliskova, the highest-ranked player without a major title, next gets 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia.

“Let’s not talk about my level [of play],” Pliskova said. “I think there is big room for improvement.”

Kenin, the American who won the Australian Open in February, outlasted Russian Liudmila Samsonova 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

“It doesn’t matter how you win — ugly, pretty, doesn’t matter,” Kenin said on Tennis Channel.

She gets Romanian Ana Bogdan in the second round. Only one other seed — No. 14 Elena Rybakina — is left in Kenin’s section en route to a possible quarterfinal.

American Jen Brady, who made a breakthrough run to the U.S. Open semifinals, was beaten by Danish qualifier Clara Tauson  6-4, 3-6, 9-7.

Sam Querrey nearly made it eight American men into the second round, serving for the match in the third set. But he succumbed to 13th-seeded Russian Andrey Rublev 6-7 (5), 6-7 (4), 7-5, 6-4, 6-3. It’s still the best first-round showing for U.S. men since nine advanced in 1996.

The second round begins Wednesday, highlighted by Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal.

MORE: Halep, Comaneci and the genesis of a Romanian friendship

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