You've heard the personal stories about refugees in the news. You've heard about Syrian refugees who used to be shopkeepers, Indonesians who left behind thriving medical practices, and Lebanese teachers who no longer have a school in which to meet with students.

There are people from all walks of life who are escaping conditions that have gone from bad to worse in recent years, and not just those fleeing the Middle East into Europe. There are refugees fleeing situations all over the world.

I had thought about a lot of these personal stories, but I hadn't thought about the athletes. Like anyone else leaving behind a life-threatening situation, those with incredible physical talent want to keep doing what they're good at. However, up until now, without a formal country to represent, you couldn't participate in the Olympics. And because gaining citizenship in a new country can take time, any world-class athletes who were stateless had to sit on the sidelines.

Now that has changed.

At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, refugee athletes will be allowed to compete, according to new rules issued by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).


“Having no national team to belong to, having no flag to march behind, having no national anthem to be played, these refugee athletes will be welcomed to the Olympic Games with the Olympic flag and with the Olympic anthem,” IOC President Thomas Bach told the general assembly.

The Olympic committee isn't just paying lip service to this idea; the committee has dedicated $2 million to help fund those refugees' training programs, including their stay in the Olympic village.

In the past, some athletes have participated under an "Independent" banner (like the South Sudanese runner in the video above), but they had to secure their own funding. This new initiative will allow more displaced athletes to participate and has established a formal system for others.

"Sport is the only area of human existence that has achieved universal law. Regardless of where in the world we practice sport, the rules are the same and apply to everyone. They are based on our shared values. Sport is always about building bridges; it is never about erecting walls," said Bach in his recent statement.

I will keep a lookout for these new athletes in the opening ceremony. Could they be the first of many who compete in the name of Planet Earth instead of a specific country?

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.