Rio Paralympics' Syrian flagbearer Ibrahim Al-Hussein eyes Tokyo return

"Nothing is impossible," said the 32-year-old as he began a day of training at the pool of the Athens Olympic complex. 

Published: 08th June 2021 01:28 PM  |   Last Updated: 08th June 2021 01:28 PM   |  A+A-

Syrian refugee Ibrahim al-Hussein takes part in a training session at the Olympic Aquatic Centre in Athens, on June 2, 2021. (Photo | AFP)


ATHENS: When he lost his lower leg in a 2012 bomb explosion in Syria, Ibrahim Al-Hussein never imagined he would one day swim in the pool where his Olympic idols broke records.

Just four years later, he was the flag bearer of a token refugee team debuting in the Rio 2016 Paralympics, and is now eyeing a return to competition in the Tokyo Games.

"Nothing is impossible," said the 32-year-old as he began a day of training at the pool of the Athens Olympic complex. 

- 'You have to fight' -

He hopes to inspire fellow refugees. "You have to fight, with your body, with your heart... you can do anything you want in your life," Al-Hussein said. 

When he was still 15, Al-Hussein would follow the exploits of Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps in the 2004 Athens Olympics from his home in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor.

The pool in Athens "is where my story began," he says, smiling.

As a child, Al-Hussein would swim along the banks of the Euphrates river with his father, already harbouring Olympic dreams.

His hopes came crashing down when Syria was engulfed in civil war in 2011 and his family was forced to flee.

Al-Hussein stayed behind at first, but after his right leg was injured in the bomb blast and it had to be amputated, he had to leave too, reaching Greece via Turkey in February 2014.

Like tens of thousands of other refugees, he made the risky Aegean Sea crossing and landed at the Greek island of Samos.

"Life in Syria was exceptionally difficult. There was nothing to eat, no electricity, no medicine," he recalls.

"Had I stayed there, I'd be dead."

After living on the streets of Athens for a fortnight, Al-Hussein was directed by a fellow Syrian to Angelos Chronopoulos, a Greek doctor who gave him a prosthetic limb.

Acquiring refugee status in 2015, he was thus able to find work and start to pick up the pieces.

"I was looking for a new homeland, somewhere to resume my life and sport. Greece became my homeland," he says.

After notching victories in Greek disabled competitions, he caught the attention of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, which picked him to carry the torch of the 2016 Rio Games flame relay in the Athens refugee camp of Eleonas. 

After that, the International Paralympic Committee offered him the chance to join the first-ever refugee team for the Rio Games, and to carry its flag into the historic Maracana Stadium.

He has since participated in European and global disabled swimming championships.

The irony is not lost on Al-Hussein that he only fulfilled his dream of competing in a Games after he lost a leg.

"When I had both legs, it was my dream to compete in the Olympics but I did not make it. I got here (with one leg instead)," he says, laughing.

"I wouldn't stop even if I lost my other leg or an arm. I want to go to Tokyo and I'm going to get there."

There are 56 athletes competing for a place on the Refugee Olympic Team, which made its debut at the 2016 Rio Games, but the hopefuls will be reduced to a team of six.


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