At the Rio Olympics in 2016, ten athletes came together to compete under a single flag.

They hailed from South Sudan, Congo, Ethiopia, and Syria, and each one had fled their home country under dire circumstances.

They marched in the Opening Ceremony with the Olympic flag, coming out just before the host country of Brazil’s team. Together, they were the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT), bringing together people who had been forced from their countries for safety reasons, and giving them a group they could represent and compete for.


These athletes gave a face to the growing refugee crisis and fulfilled lifelong dreams they thought had become impossible. They were “a symbol of hope for refugees worldwide,” according to a press release from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

A mural of the ROT athletes. Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias/Wikimedia Commons.

They also were a reminder that sports — and the Olympics themselves — are about much more than medals.

Because the Olympics have always been divided by country, this left refugees with nowhere to compete and nowhere to belong at the Games.

But in recognizing the existence of these athletes, the IOC also recognized the complexities that exist beyond the sports themselves. Because, try as some people might, there's no way to fully separate sports and politics; they are, and always will be, intertwined.

The world’s refugee crisis, which is still ongoing two years after the Rio games, is the worst it’s been since World War II, when some 60 million Europeans became refugees. It was during that time that the concept of a “refugee" became formally recognized by the United Nations — though they had, of course, always existed.

History is repeating itself in other ways, too. Countries, like the United States and Hungary, are refusing to admit refugees, citing the fact that they could pose a security threat. In 1939, the U.S. turned away a group of Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust.

But by bringing their stories to the forefront, the IOC highlighted the challenges — and triumphs — of current-day refugees.

Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias/Wikimedia Commons.

For example, Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini swam for her life just less than a year after she swam for Olympic glory. In 2015, Mardini and her eldest sister, Sarah, fled their destroyed home in Damascus to cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece.

It was a dangerous trip and their overcrowded boat suffered engine failure. Mardini, Sarah, and two others jumped into the water and pulled the boat to safety on the Greek Island of Lesbos.

"We were the only four who knew how to swim," Mardini said, according to Olympic.org. "I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that."

The 19-year-old said her message to others at the Games was to “just never give up.” A year after the Games, Mardini was one of People magazine’s “25 women changing the world,” had become a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), was working on a memoir which was going to be a film, and training for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias/Wikimedia Commons.

And Mardini wasn't the only athlete with a harrowing story to tell and obstacles to overcome.

Thirteen years after she ran for her life in Chukudum, South Sudan, Rose Nathike Lokonyen ran the 800m in Rio — and served as the flagbearer for the ROT. She finished seventh in her heat, and, a year later, addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Switzerland. She also spoke to Pope Francis in Sweden.

And she wasn’t the only member of the ROT to meet with the Pope. Fellow South Sudan refugee Paulo Amotun Lokoro, who competed in the 1500m, went to the Vatican. "The first day I arrived they treated me like a big boss, and I am not a boss!” he told CNN. “People liked me a lot."

The stories of these athletes prove that sports can accomplish more than just physical feats.

They can provide a sense of belonging and camaraderie and bring awareness to larger issues that are facing athletes as well as average individuals around the world.

Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias/Wikimedia Commons.

The athletes of the ROT made history when they competed in the Olympic Games, and many of them are continuing that work today by speaking out and advocating for change.

As we celebrate the 2018 Olympic games, let's honor the athletes that came before, shaping our world for the better.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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