There are now just four days until the 2016 Olympic Games get underway in Rio de Janeiro. The ‘greatest show on earth’ has had more than its fair share of controversies, issues and obstacles to overcome in recent weeks, but now the world’s attention turns to the sport itself. The likes of Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and Jessica Ennis-Hill have all become household names as a result of their respective successes at past Olympics, and will undoubtedly contribute some memorable moments over the coming weeks. However, there are some athletes competing whose stories encompass more than just the glory of an Olympic medal.
For most Olympians, the biggest adversity they’ll face in their preparation for a shot at Olympic success is the sheer volume of their training schedule. Not so in the case of Yusra Mardini.
In 2015, at the age of just 17, Mardini and her sister made the difficult decision to leave her home country of Syria in order to escape the ongoing civil war. Like many other Syrian refugees, the only option available to her was to make the dangerous journey over land and sea in the hope of reaching Europe. At one point, the dinghy in which the refugees were travelling stopped in the middle of the sea, the engine having cut out. Faced with the possibility of drowning with the sinking boat, Mardini and her sister jumped into the water and swam alongside the boat for three and a half hours before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos.
The Mardini sisters eventually made it to Germany, 25 days after leaving the Syrian shore. Upon their arrival, Mardini asked to be shown in the direction of the nearest swimming club. Prior to the outbreak of violence in Syria, she had competed at the Arab Games, and was supported by the Syrian Olympic Committee. After impressing her new coach in training, plans were afoot for Mardini to compete at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
However, in March of this year, the IOC announced that a team comprised of refugees were to compete in Rio. After a lengthy wait, it was announced that Mardini will compete as part of ‘Team Refugee’, having been selected from a shortlist of 43 athletes. Whilst Tokyo 2020 remains her goal, there won’t be many in Rio who have worked as hard as Yusra Mardini to earn their place at the Olympic Games.
Sonny Bill and Niall Williams
Rugby, in its abbreviated format of sevens, makes its return to the Olympic Games for the first time since 1924, when the USA took home the gold medal in Paris. New Zealand weren’t involved back then, but in 2016 they will start as one of the favourites in the men’s rugby sevens competition. They will also be able to call on the services of Sonny Bill Williams, one of the game’s most exciting players, renowned for his offloading ability. However, the man known simply as Sonny Bill is one of sport’s great polymaths. A World Cup winner with New Zealand in rugby union in both 2011 and 2015, he was also named International Player of the Year for 2013 in rugby league and is unbeaten in seven professional boxing bouts.
Sonny Bill won’t be the only member of his family competing in Rio, however. In fact, he won’t even be the only member of his family competing in the rugby sevens. His sister, Niall Williams, will also represent New Zealand at the Games, having made quite a mark on the women’s series in her short career so far. Expect both Williams siblings to impress.
Natalia Partyka and Melissa Tapper
Competing in both the Paralympics and Olympics is impressive. It makes you part of a pretty exclusive club. Natalia Partyka obviously wasn’t satisfied with doing that particular double once, however. For her, Rio will mark her third consecutive Olympic and Paralympic Games. Not to mention she’s still just 26.
Partyka will compete for Poland in the team table tennis competition, despite having been born without her right hand and forearm, in what will be a landmark occasion for the Paralympic movement. A five-time Paralympic medallist, she will no doubt be hoping to add an Olympic medal to her tally.
Melissa Tapper, meanwhile, will make her own piece of history. When the Australian makes her debut in the table tennis, she will become the first athlete from her country to compete at both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Like Partyka, she will be aiming for a medal in Rio.
Nasser al-Attiyah doesn’t seem like the kind of man who enjoys sitting around and procrastinating. When you look down his sporting CV and note that he is a five-time Olympian and double winner of the Dakar Rally, you know this is a man who likes to keep himself busy.
As he heads off to Rio to once again compete in the skeet shooting event, the Qatari will be hoping to win his second medal at an Olympic Games. At least he won’t have to repeat his qualification drama from four years ago – a mix-up with the Qatari Olympic Committee led to al-Attiyah having to fly from Santiago, where he was competing in the 2012 Dakar Rally, to Qatar via London in order to compete at the Asian Championships and thus qualify for the Olympics. It was worth it though – he took home the bronze medal, and who’s to bet against him bettering that result this time around?