David Owen

Over the past year or two, the word "refugee" has assumed quite a prominent position in the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s lexicon.

Last year it was the refugee team which competed at Rio; and now we have the Olympic Refuge Foundation, unveiled during last week’s snorefest in Lima.

So I thought the time had come for me to try and articulate why this initiative to try to help people in undeniably desperate situations has left me if not cold, then a little jaded somehow.

With the refugee team, it is just a matter of reflecting on who has benefited most from the project.

That answer seems relatively straightforward: the individuals who comprised the team - and the very best of luck to them: if anyone on this benighted planet deserves a break it is people like them.

But after them, who were the next biggest beneficiaries?

Was it "refugees across the globe" for whom, we are told, "the team acted as a symbol of hope and peace?"

Or was it the IOC itself, which got screeds of positive publicity from the initiative at a time when its reputation is not exactly at an all-time high?

The latter, I think, don't you?

The Refugee Olympic Team competed at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
The Refugee Olympic Team competed at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

The foundation looks a more substantial project altogether, or at least it could be.

It is hard to be certain without knowing the magnitude of resources that will be committed to it.

No hard numbers on this emerged at last week’s IOC Session, although I read that both the Qatar Olympic Committee and the Government of Lichtenstein had made pledges of financial support.

IOC President Thomas Bach indicated that the average cost of establishing each proposed "safe place" for sport could be around $250,000 (£185,000/€208,000). He also disclosed that funding for the first three or four years was in place.

But that was about it for financial information. How much is the IOC itself ante-ing up? I am unable at present to tell you.

The new body's aim is "to create safe, basic and accessible sports facilities in areas where there are refugees, a displaced migrant population and internally displaced people".

It will "develop sporting activities and social development projects that can be implemented in a sustainable way within these safe environments".

I want to be clear that I have not the slightest gripe with such goals.

Indeed, I believe in them so much that last year I joined a small party who spent an afternoon developing sporting activities, in this case cricket, at the migrant camp known as the Jungle in Calais, northern France.

You can read about it here.

A team-mate captured the experience with a highly evocative series of photographs which you can see here

The refugee crisis has led to millions becoming displaced ©Getty Images
The refugee crisis has led to millions becoming displaced ©Getty Images

While others might regard basic necessities such as food and warm clothes as far more important than something as frivolous as a pick-up cricket game, if that trip brought home one thing to me, it was the sheer unmitigated, stultifying tedium of day-to-day life in these places - particularly for the children and teenagers.

So, no quarrel with the need for migrant communities to have access to sport.

Yet still I find it hard to enthuse too much about this new IOC initiative. Why?

Partly, it is the same issue as with the refugee team: is this genuine institutional philanthropy, or is the prime motivator a desire to generate positive publicity when the IOC is under fire, so to speak, on many other fronts?

Even if that is a factor, though, it would be perverse to condemn an institution for attempting to paint a positive image of itself, especially when the means of achieving this could make a genuine difference to the lives of some of the world's most unfortunate inhabitants.

It is more a sense that, if the refugee situation is something it wants to get involved with, an organisation of the scope and influence of the IOC could, and ought to, be able to do more.

Buying and delivering sports gear and facilities to a camp is a positive contribution.

But, as we and scores of others have demonstrated, it is the sort of gesture any concerned individual can make without the requirement for an Olympic-branded foundation.

Not only that, though positive contribution it may be, it does nothing to address the political disputes and entrenched economic disparities which persuade people to hit the road in the first place, and which must be dealt with if the refugee phenomenon is ever going to recede.

The Refugee Olympic Team while sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro ©Getty Images
The Refugee Olympic Team while sightseeing in Rio de Janeiro ©Getty Images

Given the amount of face-time he has with heads of state and other national political leaders, one would have thought that Bach would be in a position to exert some sort of influence, however fleeting and diplomatically-worded, on the root causes of this grave global problem, as opposed to merely helping to cope with the consequences.

To be fair, the IOC President might be endeavouring to do just that - but with the number of people forced from their homes by man-made and natural disasters now estimated at more than 65 million, the approximate equivalent of the population of the UK, if he is, he does not seem to be getting very far. 

It is a very worthwhile cause, so let us hope that the new foundation increases the flow of resources to some of the neediest and most demoralised people on earth.

But I will be minded to cheer much more loudly when people stop being driven away from their homes in such unconscionable numbers and are free to use the same sports facilities, and represent the same teams, as everyone else.