What is your Olympic Sport? A reflection on the Olympic Refugee Team by Yabome Gilpin-Jackson

I love the Olympics and so does my family. It’s hard to believe the games were on barely a month ago. I seriously miss my nightly dose of catching up on the results of the day, especially for my favorites, gymnastics, swimming and track and field. During the games, our family was gathered around relishing in our nightly commentary as we watched the re-runs of the day. We traded our favorite past and present Olympic stories and highlights. We wondered how 16-year old Penny Oleksiak will fare coming back home to Canada to reintegrate into Grade 10 after breaking into the Olympics scene and claiming 4 medals. This reminded me of my university days and I shared the story of having an Olympian and several world champions on our campus. “They were stars” I said giggling. “They’d spend all semester strutting around, being jocks.” “But then…” I disintegrated into peels of laughter… “at exams, they’d run around looking frantic! Looking for notes and asking what to focus on for exam prep.” Still laughing, I said: “that was my turn to strut when the world champion in my class came to ask me for notes. I took my leisurely time to sort through books with him, gloating all the while!” By now, we were all laughing as my sister said: “I guess academics were your Olympics!!”

You see, I was a straight A student. I loved reading, studying and being on top of my school work. I was committed to academic excellence. I’d get my paper written and submitted on time and still make it to whatever party was going on. In general, I was always super prepared for tests, assignments and exams. My sister was right – academics were my Olympics – the thing I was committed enough to, to practice every day and put the proverbial 10,000 hours into. In many ways, it is still the sport I am committed to now, expressed in my ongoing writing, facilitating, publishing and conference presenting.

So my question today is: What is your Olympic sport?

I believe we all have a sport we are playing in this game called life. Ideally, it is the sport that brings you joy, in which you experience flow when you are in practice. It is the one thing you desire to practice until you achieve some level of mastery and make a contribution to the world through it. It is the thing that drives your purpose. And purpose, in our humanity, anchors our identities and the reason for our existence such that unless/until you are running your own race, there is a profound sense of emptiness, like you are missing something.

My inquiry into: “what is your Olympics?” is a call to each of us to find our own sport and as Saint Peter put it so long ago “let us run with endurance the race set out for us.” As in the Olympics, there is a competitive side to the game of life in which we play to win medals. However, far more important than that is the sportsmanship award. This is the award that goes to those who show-up, participate fully, endure to the end and inspire others as a result of their sportsmanship. This year, my Olympic inspiration came from the first ever Refugee Olympic Team. They win my sportsmanship award. This team of 10 chose to show-up and participate fully. They did not win a single medal, but right from being welcomed with the loudest cheer at the opening ceremony, they had already won. Their race was to remind the world, at this time of global refugee crisis, of the humanity of refugees. That refugees are people, like you and I, who have hopes and aspirations and who dare to dream of changing the world, and to live on purpose. They reminded us that “no one is ever just a refugee” as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi said in her World Humanitarian Day Speech on August 22, just a day after the Olympics ended. They showed us loud and clear, that refugees can and do achieve many other things once they are welcomed into new home countries and communities who dare to see the possibility of a shared future with those seeking refuge. Countries and communities that choose to show-up, endure the initial complexities of integrating others and then become an inspiration to the world when they show that it can be done. I have a feeling we have only just began to see the impact of this historic Refugee Olympic Team.

I share a piece of this Olympic Refugee Team’s story. I ran my academic race because I too had been a refugee and arrived in Canada determined to make-up for the years I had lost in translation. I won a kind of gold medal in return, graduating at the top of my class with the Dean’s medal. An award published in the university news online post and then released to the press under the title: “Refugee earns top business medal.” I was ruffled by the latter chose of title, resentful to have been pegged solely with my refugee experience for publicity of the story. And in many ways, that is a classic example of why part of my Olympic sport now is telling those stories less told, such as stories of African leadership and identities.

So how about you? What is your Olympic sport? How are you leading the African narrative?

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