GENEVA – The Olympic flame for the Rio de Janeiro Games came to the United Nations in Geneva on Friday, where officials said a team of refugee athletes will bring a message of hope for refugees around the world.
The flame, which was lit in Greece last week and taken to Switzerland in a lantern, was brought to the U.N. offices for the first time before it heads to Brazil for the torch relay ahead of the opening ceremony in Rio on Aug. 5. “This flame is a beacon of solidarity with all peoples of the world,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. He hailed the decision of the International Olympic Committee to create a team of refugee athletes who will compete in Rio under the Olympic flag.
“For the first time in history, talented athletes who have been forced to flee their homes will get a chance to chase gold,” Ban said. “Their fellow refugees will see outstanding contenders who give hope to all. And the world will see refugees the way they deserve to be seen: as talented, strong and inspiring people.”
“Win or lose, they are champions of the spirit,” he added. “I welcome the refugee team – and I will be cheering for them with all my might.” The IOC has identified 43 refugees as contenders for the team, which is expected to comprise between five and 10 athletes. The IOC will announce the lineup at its next executive board meeting in early June.
On Monday, a Syrian amputee refugee, Ibrahim Al-Hussein, carried the torch as it passed through a refugee camp in Athens.
“By welcoming this team of refugee Olympic athletes, we want to send a message of hope to all refugees in our world that they are not forgotten,” IOC President Thomas Bach said. “In our fragile world, the Olympic values of solidarity and peace are more important than ever.”
The flame traveled later Friday by boat to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, home of the IOC. An eight-man rowing crew delivered the flame to Rio organizing committee chief Carlos Nuzman, who lit a cauldron outside the museum on the banks of Lake Geneva. The flame will remain on display over the weekend before heading to Brazil.
The flame will reach Brazil on Tuesday, starting in the capital of Brasilia and kicking off a nationwide relay involving 12,000 torchbearers that covers 12,000 miles by road and 10,000 miles by air.
The Olympics approach at a time when Brazil is in the grip of political, economic and public health crises. President Dilma Rousseff is facing impeachment, the economy is in severe recession and the country is at the epicenter of the Zika virus outbreak. The IOC and Brazilian organizers said the games – the first in South America – will overcome the challenges and be a success.
“These will be spectacular Olympic Games,” Bach said. “In just a few weeks, the Brazilian people will enthusiastically welcome the world and amaze us with their joy of life and their passion for sport.”
Nuzman said the city is ready to “deliver history.” “These will be great games,” he said. “They will help our people to feel more confident. The games will confirm that Brazil will always come out of troubles stronger than before. We will host our visitors with grace and charm.” The U.N. ceremony came 98 days before the opening of the games.
“There is not a second to lose,” Nuzman said. “We are ready to host the world. We are proud to be Brazilians.”
Bach presented the U.N. with the Olympic Cup, the highest award given by the IOC to an organization or institution. Ban noted that he ran with the Olympic torch before the 2012 London Olympics and the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.