IOC must send a message to Donald Trump: The Games are open to all

Yusra Mardini provided one of the most uplifting stories at the 2016 Olympics but would be barred from competing in a Los Angeles Olympic Games in 2024 if President Trump's ban pertains
Yusra Mardini provided one of the most uplifting stories at the 2016 Olympics but would be barred from competing in a Los Angeles Olympic Games in 2024 if President Trump's ban pertains Credit: Lars Baron/Getty Images

In Rio last summer, the swimmer Yusra Mardini provided the most uplifting tale of the Olympic Games. Not because of her performance: this Erica the Eel came 41st out of 45 entries to the 100 metres butterfly. But because of what the 18-year-old had overcome to be there.

A promising junior swimmer in her native Syria, engaged on her country’s Olympic programme, as society imploded around her she had put her ambition on hold to flee for her life to Europe.

Just over a year before she arrived in Rio, she and her sister boarded a smugglers’ boat heading across the Mediter-ranean. A dinghy meant to carry no more than six, it was rammed with 25 desperate refugees. When, midway into the voyage, it was decided that someone had to jump to lighten the payload, the two sisters volunteered. They leapt in, and pushed the dinghy for three miles until they reached the coast of Lesbos, in the process saving the lives of those who remained on board.

“I thought it would be a real shame if I drowned in the sea,” Yusra explained. “Because I am a swimmer.”

After a 25-day journey north, Yusra eventually arrived in Berlin. Here, she made her way to the pool Hitler had commissioned for the 1936 Olympics. Her skill in the water was soon noted by a coach who began to work with her, thinking she might make the 2020 Games in Tokyo. She trained prodigiously, getting up at four every morning to swim before school. And when her coach heard that the International Olympic Committee was putting a team of refugees together for Rio, he proposed she should be selected.

Yusra Mardini, 18, from Syria speaks with her German coach Sven Spannekrebs  Credit: REUTERS/Michael Dalder

So it was that she arrived in Brazil, part of a 10-strong party of the dispossessed. And what an ambassador she was. I was struck when she had finished her race by the optimism she exuded. Hers was a story that spoke to the very purpose of sport, a tale the IOC was delighted to piggy back, to show its inclusivity and benevolence.

And, as things now stand, it would be something it would be unable to offer were the 2024 Olympic Games to be awarded to Los Angeles. Because, were President Trump’s all-inclusive bar on anyone born in Syria entering the country still to be in operation, Yusra would be unable to attend. Nor would any athlete representing the six other states whose citizenry Trump has decided to exclude.

Syrian swimmer Yusra Mardini of the Refugee Olympic Team at Rio Credit: Ker Robertson/Getty Images

Which is something the IOC should consider when it decides in September where it is going to stage its 2024 edition. As the body was keen to insist, as it basked in Yusra’s reflected glory last summer, sport is border free. It surely must acknowledge it cannot now engage with a country operating such draconian entry restrictions. Right now, Los Angeles does not meet the most fundamental of Olympic requirements: it is not open to all.

You imagine the repercussions of the presidential diktat on sport are unlikely to cause much lost sleep in the White House. Besides, it will be pointed out that ways have quickly been found to ensure Somali-born Mo Farah can get to training camp in Oregon and the Sudan-born Luol Deng can continue to throw hoops for LA Lakers. But the very fact that sport is being entangled in the legislation offers stark comment on the reckless dangers of policy driven by knee-jerk populism.

Demonstrators protest President Donald Trump's executive order which imposes a freeze on admitting refugees into the United States at the international terminal at O'Hare Airport  Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Michael Bradley, the captain of the US football team, put it succinctly. “How sad and embarrassed I am,” he said of the ban. “The values and ideals of my country are being sacrificed.”

Sport should generally endeavour to separate itself from politics. But sometimes politics impinges so heavily on its processes, it needs to respond. And the IOC should make it clear: under current circumstances Los Angeles cannot be considered as a suitable host for a celebration of sporting internationalism. For Yusra’s sake, it has to be Paris.