Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee today welcomed to our offices nineteen-year-old Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini, who competed at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 as a member of the Refugee Olympic Team. This brave young lady was appointed as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador in April 2017, and today she shared her experiences as an athlete, a refugee and an ambassador during her visit.
In front of a crowd of Tokyo 2020 staff members who gathered to meet her, Mardini was joined by two-time swimming Olympian and current Tokyo 2020 staff member Hanae Ito, by Dirk Hebecker, the 12th UNHCR Representative in Japan, and by Toru Sugio, Director of Protocol at Tokyo 2020.
Mardini explained that the purpose of her visit was to raise awareness of global refugee issues among the Japanese and to tell her own story of how sport had changed her life. Exchanges between Mardini and the other guests included the following:
Ito : “What was the reason you started swimming?”
Mardini : “It was because of my dad. He was a swimming coach and I was three years old.”
Ito : “As a swimmer, you need to train, and for that you need a pool. What was the training environment like in Syria?”
Mardini : “In Syria, we had an Olympic-size 50-meter pool, and we once hosted a Paralympic Games and a World Championships there. We had a lot of good venues but no sports schools, so I only had two hours of training every day. My dad isn't the easiest coach I know, and a lot of people from swimming federations helped us too. So, it worked out well.”
Sugio : “What were your thoughts fleeing to Germany and how were you able to keep your passion for swimming?”
Mardini : “Before the war, Syria had more visitors than Australia. I had to flee my home, firstly because of the war, and secondly because I felt I was training but there was no spirit there. I knew that in the future I wouldn't reach my goals, because of the outbreak of war. I couldn't practice every day. Sometimes, I had to go back in the middle of training because there was bombing. After I competed at Rio, I started to think that I am not only swimming for me now, I am swimming for lots of people who have put faith in me and I am a representative of lots of refugees around the world.”
Ito : “How has your life changed or how has your perspective changed after being a part of the Rio Olympic Games?”
Mardini : “After we started swimming, the IOC said that they want to make a refugee Olympic team. But I did not accept the idea at the beginning, because I thought that it is too much to be part of a refugee team—people will think that I do not have a home or anything. But then they said there are Syrian swimmers in Germany and when I was there, lots of people sent me messages so I felt I have a responsibility. What changed my way of thinking is that beforehand I was thinking about own my success but now I am thinking about how can I help other people reach their goals. I am inspiring them but they are also inspiring me.”
Mardini also took the opportunity of her visit to sign a board emblazoned with the Tokyo 2020 emblem, and said that she is looking forward to competing at Tokyo 2020!