Billy Connolly never liked the Olympic Games. “A bit Nuremburg,” he said. You can see what he means. There does tend to be rather a lot of flag-waving at the Games. The victory lap with national flag has been de rigueur for many years; and rather too often for comfort, these celebrations seem to be about big, rich nations cocking a snook at small poor ones.


All the same, there are a couple of points to bear in mind. The first is that there was only one flag on view at the Nuremburg Rallies in Nazi Germany: at the Olympics Games in Rio more than 200 national flags will be streaming. The Games celebrate the boundless biodiversity of humankind, rather than human monoculture: and that seems to me good, not bad.

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There will be 206 nations competing at the Olympic Games in Rio. But we humans are not defined entirely by our nationality. In an increasingly crowded, mobile and troubled world, there are plenty of people whose nationalities are complex, uncertain and elusive of exact definition. Johanna Konta, representing Britain in tennis, was born in Australia to Hungarian parents before settling in this country. Nationality is no longer a simple issue.

Yusra Mardini, 18, left Damascus in 2015 and is now an official refugee, living in Berlin. She swims in the 100m freestyle

And there are increasing numbers of people who live in one country because they were driven out of another. This is one of the great crises of the current century: vast numbers of people unable either to return to the country they were born in or to be accepted anywhere else: the people of No-Country, the flagless people, the people who represent no place and every person.

We call them refugees: too many people in a world with too much trouble. Sometimes such lost and rejected souls get lucky, find a home, become accepted and play a vivid part in the life of their new country. Mo Farah was born in Somalia. He left that troubled place when he was a child. He is now British, one of the greatest runners that ever pulled on a set of spikes, and a double gold-medal-winner at the London Olympic Games four years ago.

The world is creating refugees faster than we can find them homes. There are many athletes – promising, perhaps with the potential to be the greatest ever – who won’t be lining up at the Olympic Games in Rio because they have had other priorities in their lives – priorities like saving their lives and their family’s lives, escaping from nameless horrors and trying to find a new life without fear of imminent death.

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Yolande Bukasa Mabika, 28, sought asylum in Brazil in 2013 after leaving the Democratic Republic of Congo

As a result they have been unable to train, to develop their talents, even to think of doing what they are best at. The flagless people are also the sport-less people. Their lives have been too grim for the joyous frivolities of games.

The administrators who run big-time sport seldom get a kind word from anyone. Our default position is mistrust at best. That’s not just cynicism: the facts tend to bear it out, as the unfolding nastiness of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee’s decision to pass the buck when it comes to Russia’s state-sponsored doping programme. Russia can’t compete in track and field, but the other sports are available to every drugs-cheat in Russia.

But the IOC has done something right and however much this goes against the grain, we need to applaud them. Look out for the Opening Ceremony: after Zambia and Zimbabwe and just before the host nation Brazil take the cheers of the crowd, a delegation of ten athletes will march past. They won’t do so under the flag of their own nation because they haven’t got one. This thing we take for granted is beyond their reach. So they will march behind the Olympic Flag, the flag of the flagless: and they will set out over the following 16 days of action to do their damnedest for the No-Country they represent.

Rami Anis, the 100m butterfly competitor, fled Syria for Istanbul aged 20 when the war began. He now trains in Belgium

This is ROT: the Refugee Olympic Team. Should any of them win a gold medal – and who wouldn’t wish for that? – their victory will be greeted with the sound of the Olympic Anthem, which is a bit of a dirge but never mind: the thought is better than the tune.

All this was set up by the IOC, who asked all the constituent National Olympic Committees if they were acting as hosts to athletes of Olympic standard who lacked a country to represent. The process found 43 possibles, who have been narrowed down to the Rio Ten. Inevitably, the IOC sent their platitude machine into overdrive. The president, Thomas Bach, said: “They will be a symbol of hope for all the refugees in the world, and make the world aware of the magnitude of the crisis.”

There’s truth behind this rhetoric – but a much greater truth in the athletes themselves.

They come from horrors we can’t understand, but now they’re the kind of intense, apparently rather boring people we recognise as the “focused” modern athlete. Never mind global politics: “You are an athlete, you just think about your race,” said Yusra Mardini, a swimmer who fled from Syria and now trains in Germany.

Rami Anis left Syria because of bombing and the kidnap industry and didn’t think about swimming again for five years, Now he’s training in Belgium. Yiech Pur Biel, an 800m runner, escaped from South Sudan as children of his age – ten – were being drafted into the army. Now he’s training hard in Kenya: “We refugees – we are human beings like other people, you see.”


Award-winning sports writer Simon Barnes covered seven Olympics for The Times