The Rio Olympics has its opening ceremony on Friday, and for the first time ever there will be a team competing under the Olympic, rather than their national, flag (see http://www.mirror.co.uk/sport/refugee-survivors-team-no-home-8548134 for a complete list of the Olympians on the team). Ten athletes—five from South Sudan, two from Syria, two from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one from Ethiopia—will be competing for Olympic gold, but not for their countries of birth or their current countries of residence. The Olympic refugee team provides a counter-image to the pictures of tent cities and migrants drowned in dangerous crossings or suffocated in the backs of lorries trying to reach safe havens in Europe. Being a refugee from conflict or an economic migrant is generally seen as a negative thing, even for children. The recent Brexit vote resulted in part from a fear of too much immigration, legal or not. Only yesterday, Yvette Cooper criticized the UK’s prime minister, Theresa May, for failing to let in more than 20 child migrants to the UK despite the absence of legal barriers (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/03/child-refugees-theresa-may-yvette-cooper).
And yet, Britain has a long history of accepting migrants (whether refugees or not) who have turned out to be contributing members of society. In fact, three earlier migrants to Britain became among the many Black British Olympians, winning medals for their adopted country. Ade Adepitan, a migrant from Nigeria whose parents thought he would get better health care in Britain after polio left him partially paralyzed, went on to win a bronze medal in the 2004 Athens Paralympic games. Mo Farah, who left war-torn Somalia at the age of eight and came to London, went from knowing three English phrases to becoming one of Britain’s greatest distance runner and Olympic gold medalist. Tessa Sanderson was the first Black British woman to win Olympic gold. She and her family were part of the Windrush generation, coming to Britain from Jamaica in the early 1960s.
These Olympians—and many others—are profiled in Britain’s Black Olympians (Eds. Jackie Ould-Okojie and Emma Britain, 2012), a book which was published by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust in Manchester in time to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic games. The trust was set up in memory of Ahmed Iqbal Ullah, a thirteen-year-old boy from Manchester murdered in the playground of his school by a fellow pupil in 1986. Ullah, whose family was Bangladeshi, frequently stood up to bullies who shouted racial slurs, particularly at members of the British Asian community. The Trust set up in his name publishes literature written by schoolchildren of all backgrounds in the Manchester area, including refugees.
The primary school-age child authors of Britain’s Black Olympians did not write extensive biographies—most are only a few hundred words—but one of the key features for these kids to write about was the background of the Olympians. Adepitan’s family “bravely” (1) moved to London because of his disability; Farah left “because of the civil war in Somalia” (9); Sanderson’s father, who preceded the rest of his family to England, came “to find work” (55). At the time these athletes arrived, and when many of the children who wrote the biographies came with their families, Britain was seen as a safer place with more employment and services for people from countries disadvantaged by conflict or economics. Will the current generation of economic migrants and refugees from conflicts see the UK in the same way, especially given the post-Brexit increase in racist incidents (see the Runnymede Trust’s website for more on post-Brexit racism)?
Britain’s Black Olympians was one of the first (if not THE first) to profile Adepitan, Farah, and Sanderson (as well as many others). Since then, there have been a couple of other books for children that focus on these athletes. Collins Big Cat levelled reading series, which has previously committed to other biographies of Black Britons including Walter Tull and Mary Seacole, in 2013 published an autobiography by Adepitan, Ade Adepitan: A Paralympian’s Story. And just last week—in time for the Rio Olympics—Hodder published Ready, Steady, Mo!, co-written by Mo Farah and Kes Gray. Ready, Steady, Mo! is not a biography, but a rhyming text designed to encourage kids to run everywhere. In both cases, these books were written (at least in part) BY the athletes themselves. I’m glad that they were published, but it is somewhat disappointing to think that although kids are clearly, given Britain’s Black Olympians, interested in these athletes, nonfiction authors and (especially mainstream) publishers have by and large given them a miss. At least Adepitan and Farah have books by or about them in print for children; Britain’s first Black woman Olympian, Tessa Sanderson, is nowhere to be found in stand-alone biographies for children.
The Olympic Games are a time to celebrate athletes who compete for love of sport and pride in origins. Many participants struggle against great odds to get to the Games, and this is even more true this year with the first ever Refugee Team. As you watch, remember the histories of athletes like Adepitan, Farah and Sanderson, and think about the future of the Refugee Athletes. Hopefully, in years to come, there will be children’s books to tell their stories as well.