Last week kicked off the Rio Olympic Games. Every four years the Olympic games signal an opportunity to celebrate principles highlighted by the Olympic Charter such as respect, harmony, fairness, solidarity, and excellence.
This year – like in years past – the Olympics also brought rightful scrutiny of and attention to human rights violations in Brazil, including eviction, child displacement, police and army violence, and poor labor conditions.
As a physician who works on human rights issues, I’ve been watching closely. Like many others, I’ve been asking myself, “How can we celebrate the spirit of the Olympics without ignoring the plight of so many individuals around the world?”
We can find at least some answers in the stories of athletes competing in the Olympics.
For example, this year marks the emergence of the first Refugee Olympic Team. The team consists of ten athletes from around the world – including two Syrian swimmers, two judokas from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a marathoner from Ethiopia, and five middle-distance runners from South Sudan.
These Olympians symbolize the strength and courage of many of their friends, family members, and compatriots who remain in war zones. Each athlete on the Refugee Olympic Team has overcome tremendous hardship.
In an ideal world, the Refugee Olympic Team wouldn’t exist. But – if we pay attention – the great stories of these and other Olympians could help shine a light on the plight of other people caught in or fleeing conflict in Syria, Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and elsewhere.
For example, just last week, an article called “Wrenching Choice in South Sudan: Starve or Risk Rape” published in The New York Times highlighted the growing danger for women in South Sudan. Women caught in United Nations-run displacement camps are running out of food. Leaving the camp to secure food for their families places them at risk for rape by government soldiers.
Two days before The New York Times article was published, The Guardian published a story about young girls raped in eastern Congo who are still waiting for justice.
In Ethiopia, deadly violence is expected to get worse as the government cracks down on people protesting human rights abuses.
And just this week, the United Nations heard expert testimony about barrel bombings, continued attacks on medical facilities, the use of chemical weapons, and ongoing suffering inside the Syrian city of Aleppo.
The strength and courage shown by members of the Refugee Olympic Team show how individuals can rise above tremendous turmoil and excel – similar to what I’ve observed in torture and sexual violence survivors from Syria, Congo, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.
It’s a phenomenon called the Phoenix Effect, and “Phoenix Zones” foster resilience through key principles – freedom, sovereignty, love, tolerance, justice, opportunity, and dignity – not unlike those found in the Olympic Charter.
So, what can we each do in our own lives and communities – in a complex world determined by politics, economics, and long-standing historical and cultural influences? After all, it’s easy to feel powerless in a world governed by these forces. But each and every one of these forces is ultimately impacted by our individual and collective choices.
The true test of our commitment to the principles found in the Olympic Charter and Phoenix Zones comes outside of the Olympic stadium and after the Olympic games.
How will we respond to refugees seeking safe haven in communities in the United States? What will we each do to help address child poverty in our own cities and towns? How will our purchasing practices and power support fair trade rather than fast trade? And how will our votes cast in November impact the lives of women, girls, and other vulnerable populations around the world?
To answer, we are asked to do relatively little – no harrowing migration, no competing for gold. We only have to answer with compassion, empathy, and conviction. By answering the call, maybe we can create a world of champions.