Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

In his closing remarks at the 43rd European Olympic Committees (EOC) Seminar in Paris yesterday, the EOC President Spyros Capralos observed: "There was no better way to finish this Seminar than hearing the words from our Ukrainian friends. They remind us that we need solidiarity, we need to work for peace, and I hope that we will all continue working together and providing our help  as we have done up to now for Ukraine."

A few minutes earlier the final item on the programme, on the broad topic of how sporting opportunities have been and can be provided for those displaced from their own countries, had concluded with a heartfelt vote of thanks from the Ukraine National Olympic Committee delegate Nelia Demianets.

Seated at her alphabetically designated place, with a little blue and yellow national flag at her left hand, her voice broke with emotion as she announced: "I would like to take the opportunity of this platform to thank all of you on behalf of the athletes of Ukraine, on behalf of their Olympic and sport community, and the Ukrainian people, for all your support.

"With the support of all your counties you have provided for our athletes and our sport.

"We appreciate it highly. The solidarity of the European continent is a good example for others as to how there can be this solidarity. 

"Only through being together, only through being consolidated, we can bring peace to our country and to our continent. So thank you very much."

One of the biggest talking points of the two-day event at the Pullman Paris Hotel was a suggestion voiced on day one by the delegates from Sweden and Norway that a "sport expert group" by set up to deal with the sports programme for future editions of the European Games.

Hasan Arat, chair of the 2023 European Games Coordination Commission, accepted the need for a "solid programme", adding that the topic would be discussed at the debriefing following the European Games in Kraków-Malopolska due to start on June 21 and scheduled to close on July 2. 

But at the start of day two, in an address that was not part of the original programme of events in Paris, Arat adopted the phrase famously used about the United States by President Kennedy: "To use the famous phrase of President John F Kennedy, we should think not what the European Games can do for us, but what we can do for the European Games..

"With less than 40 days to go we must show respect to all work done and focus on what is just in front of us.

"I need to remind you that the Kraków Games will have the best sports programme these Games have ever had, as 18 sports are European qualifiers for the Olympic Games."

Arat’s comments were underlined in the closing comments by Capralos, who reiterated his colleague’s phrase that, "These are not the Games of some other organisation; these are our Games.

"Their success depends on us, and I have no doubt they will be successful.

"But the level of that success depends on us all."

EOC President Spyros Capralos highlighted in his closing remarks at the Seminar in Paris the impassioned thanks offered to NOCs for their support by the Ukraine delegate ©EOC
EOC President Spyros Capralos highlighted in his closing remarks at the Seminar in Paris the impassioned thanks offered to NOCs for their support by the Ukraine delegate ©EOC

Arat, whose own country of Turkey knows all too well the tragic reality of displacement after the earthquakes that took place in the region earlier this year, made a profound point when he reminded the assembled delegates of the scale of assistance that the European Games hosts, Poland, have offered to their near-neighbours, having taken in between two and three million refugees from Ukraine.

In such circumstances, the solidity of a sports programme becomes a less compelling topic.

The scale of the global challenge was described to delegates by the opening address in the Refugees topic by Jojo Ferris, Head of the Olympic Refuge Foundation.

"There are currently nine million people displaced across Europe," she said, "with the number of refugees doubling in 2022. And across the globe 103 million people have been forced from their homes – or one per cent of humanity."

Looking ahead to next year's Olympic Games in the French capital, Ferris added: "The team will be selected next year from Refugee Athlete scholarship holders, of which the number continues to grow. There are currently 56 athletes coming from 12 different countries, living in 20 host countries across all continents and competing in 13 different sports.

"Out of these host countries half are in Europe. And I thank the 10 NOCs involved in particular for making this entire project possible and for all your support to date."

More immediately In the arena of sport, however, the EOC is about to become a pioneer as it prepares a five-strong Refugee Team to compete at the European Games.

Peter Brull, EOC sport director, told the Seminar: "We are looking forward to seeing these athletes competing in Kraków and marching at the Opening Ceremony under the EOC flag.

"This is the first ever refugee team at any Continental Games. So we have been the first Continental organisation to have a refugee team."

When plans for the team were announced last month Capralos said: "Ongoing conflicts, persecution and climate change continue to force millions of people from their homes.

"When they settle in new countries, sport is more than just a tool for integration, it can help to escape trauma, it can give athletes a focus and sense of purpose, help them rebuild their lives, create social networks and much more."

Of the EOC Refugee Team in Kraków-Małopolska, three are taekwondo athletes and two are boxers.

Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin, now living in Germany, is due to compete in the women’s under-62 kilogram category in taekwondo.

A gold medallist at the Summer Youth Olympics at Nanjing in 2014, she won Olympic bronze for Iran at Rio 2016 but competed at Tokyo 2020 for the Refugee Olympic Team, finishing fifth in featherweight.

Poland has been organising this year's European Games, despite the country having had to cope with more than two million refugees displaced from the war in neighbouring Ukraine ©Getty Images
Poland has been organising this year's European Games, despite the country having had to cope with more than two million refugees displaced from the war in neighbouring Ukraine ©Getty Images

Dina Pouryounes Langeroudi, also Iranian-born but now resident in The Netherlands, was part of the same team at Tokyo 2020 where she finished 11th in the flyweights.

She is expected to take part in the 46kg category at Kraków-Małopolska 2023.

Kasra Mehdipournejad, another who has settled in Germany, is targeting the men’s the men’s under-89kg taekwondo class.

He won the Belgian and Dutch Opens in 2018.

In boxing, Farid Walizadeh is set to compete in the men’s under-57kg category.

Originally from Afghanistan, he was separated from his family as a child but eventually settled in Portugal.

Cindy Ngamba, born in Cameroon, is trying to resolve her status in Britain but is set to box in the women’s under-66kg section.

They are all among the 56 refugee athlete scholarship holders hoping to be selected for the Olympic Refugee Team for Paris 2024.

Brull went on to explain how the possibility of having a Refugee Team at the third European Games, following Baku 2015 and Minsk 2019, had been explored.

"As a basis we had a list of refugee athletes residing in Europe and hosted by National Olympic Committees that are receiving Olympic Scholarships through Olympic Solidarity," he said.

"Looking at this list we have of course to check it with the list of sports we have on the programme in Kraków, and also what form of the sports are on the programme.

"During this process we were also very happy that we were contacted by the European NOCs hosting refugees enquiring about the possibility for them to participate in the European Games.

"And we were also contacted by the European Taekwondo Federation, who wished to include refugees in the European Games, some of whom were at the level where if they had their own NOC they would actually have qualified.

"So finally our European Refugee team will have five athletes in two sports - boxing and taekwondo.

"Our three athletes in taekwondo are all originally from Iran, with one already a bronze medallist from the Rio 2016 Games

"All three of these athletes are in the top 16 of the European rankings so they would have qualified for the Games anyway and we are very happy to have them there.

"And they are very competitive so we are looking forward also to maybe an athlete from the European Refugee Team being on the podium."

Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin won an Olympic bronze medal in taekwondo at Rio 2016 competing in Iran's colours but has since defected and will now compete for the EOC Refugee Team at this year's European Games ©Getty Images
Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin won an Olympic bronze medal in taekwondo at Rio 2016 competing in Iran's colours but has since defected and will now compete for the EOC Refugee Team at this year's European Games ©Getty Images

Representatives from three of the European NOCs currently helping to manage the refugee crisis by providing access to sports clubs and, when appropriate, elite competition, offered the Seminar background to their activities.

Katrin Grafarend, head of international relations for the German Olympic Sports Federation, told delegates: "Currently there are more than three million people seeking protection in the country.  Of course this creates challenges for the sporting system. Sports halls and school gyms are closed because they are being used to accommodate refugees.

"Fortunately we have found more appropriate accommodation for the athletes we are looking after, but now the question is how to integrate athletes into our sporting system.

"But we can count on a 30-year long experience on this challenge by 'Integration Through Sport', which supervises the process and is funded by the Federal Office for the Integration of Refugees in Germany.

"It started out with the question of how to better include migrants into the German sporting system. It’s a whole range. There’s a coach education offered, for example, to teach coaches and instructors on how to work with diverse groups and people from different cultural backgrounds who have had difficult experiences in the countries they have come from.

"So we tried to support our athletes in better responding to this challenge. Luckily we can count on the continued support from the German Ministry, who have even increased the budget recently.

"In the end the solutions are found on a local level when it comes to sport. Many of the sports clubs don’t charge refugees membership fees.

"When it comes to top sports there are a three-digits number of those athletes, and about 50 of them are Olympians and World Championship level athletes in our training centres.

"For example, the Ukraine handball team are all now living in Germany and are now integrated and playing in the Second Bundesliga.

Another example given was of Germany’s Tokyo 2020 10 kilometres open water swimming champion Florian Wellbrock offering a place to stay for Ukrainian rival  Mykhalo Romanchuk in the wake of the Russian invasion, after which the two trained together.

" think this is one of the really nice examples of friendship and solidarity – what it is really all about in sport," Grafarend said.

"The International Olympic Committee’s Refugee Olympic Team has been committed to this problem from the very beginning. We have had refugee athletes training in Germany who have participated both in the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Olympics. And we are now preparing the current refugee Athlete Scholarship holders hoping to be present in Paris next year.

"NOC Germany is hosting the most Athletes Scholarship holders. They are coming from Iran and Syria in swimming, weightlifting, track and field, judo, taekwondo and canoeing.

"And we are also proud that we can contribute to the first European Games Refugee team."

Emmanuel Kolympadis, secretary general of the Greek NOC, told delegates about the two-layer European Union-funded project being operated to provide sporting opportunities for displaced youth.

Marco Alves, from Portugal’s High Performance and Sport Representation Office, offered a perspective from his country’s point of view experience.

"Our programme started in 2016," he said. "We had the chance to establish good partnerships with all the institutes that worked with refugees in Portugal. We now have 1500 refugees identified by this programme.

"How do we do this? We have asked institutions to perform an online survey regarding their sport habits and needs. And depending on that we work with other partners to get some sport equipment to choose that will allow them to practise the sport that they are used to do in their own country.

"We have also made some arrangements so that they can visit national federations, they go into their sport events and stay involved that way.

"We try to track refugees that aspire to have a sporting career and from those 1,500 we have identified two athletes that are trying to fulfil the Olympic dream – Farid Walizadeh and Dorian Keletela.

"We had to do some work to identify the path that we could give to Farid for him to participate in sport.

"The cooperation we were able to establish with the Spanish and Slovenian teams was the best solution because he needs training partners to practise if he is to follow his dream of going to the Olympics.

"But even then he faced some struggles. The first qualification tournament for Tokyo was in London and it was all settled for Farid to take part but at the last minute in the airport he was not able to go because having a refugee passport it was very tricky.

"After missing that European qualification he wasn’t able to attend the Tokyo Olympics."

The second elite-level refugee athlete in Portugal, Keletela, is a sprinter from Congo, who has run 10.27sec for the 100 metres.

"In athletics we have more organised sport so it is easier for us to let Dorian practise with our national coach. He now represents one of the main four athletics sports clubs in Portugal, Sporting.

"He became the first refugee athlete to take part in the European Athletics Indoor Championships and was also at the Oregon 2022 World Athletics Championships.

"In this field, it’s all about preparation and partnerships."