Olympic Melting Pot: The 44 migrants of Team USA

The pageantry of the recent opening ceremony of the Olympic Games coalesced representatives of 207 nations in astounding fashion. With the games now well underway, the world’s finest athletes have been displaying their prowess as they proudly represent their countries in the hunt for gold. 

As team USA takes to the track, court, or pool this summer, an astonishing 44 foreign born athletes will be donning the stars and stripes hailing from 28 native countries. This marks the second consecutive time more than 40 summer U.S. athletes will be immigrants, up from 27 in 2004.

They represent a diverse group, from the 20 year old Italian-born Luca Cupido, to Meb Keflezighi, originally a refugee from Eritrea who, at 41 will become the oldest U.S Olympic distance runner in history. Several of these athletes represent the U.S in more ways than one. Kenyan Born athletes Paul Chelimo, Shadrack Kipchirchir, Hillary Bor and Leonard Korir are all members of the U.S Army, devoting their time and efforts to their adoptive nation on multiple fronts.

These athletes are an exemplification of the positive impact migrants bring to their new countries, not only living a better life for themselves, but helping their adoptive nation. Their tales are the American dream in a nation that too often forgets its origins as a melting pot of nations. Immigrants augment the life force of a country not just as Olympians but in every profession imaginable.

Taking a deeper look at the athletes under our flag reveals stories of hope and resilience. In some cases they have risen from poverty or conflict to representing the U.S. at the highest level.

Nick Delpopolo (see interview below), adopted from an orphanage in Montenegro, and past Olympian Lopez Lomong who spent 10 years in a Sudanese refugee camp, are just a couple of examples. While these athletes have found home in the U.S., countless refugees and migrants around the globe are left hoping.

For ten athletes in Rio, home will be under the Olympic flag. Hailing from South Sudan, Syria, Ethiopia, and The Congo, they will represent the first ever Olympic Refugee team. The Refugee team will help elucidate the true breadth of the global refugee ad migration crisis, and while they are not expected to win gold, they represent something more profound.

As reported by media, IOC President Thomas Bach stated that along with helping raise awareness, “These refugee athletes will show the world that, despite the unimaginable tragedies they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.” 

Also helping bring light to migrants is Mini’s “Defy Labels” commercial campaign which has been running during the Olympics. The spot features 19 year old boxer Carlos Balderas who is representing the U.S this summer and is the first of his family born in the U.S. He talks about how people carry negative connotations with the word “immigrant” thinking of gangs while he sees it positively and tries to reverse the negative label using it as motivation.

This year, both the migrants and refugees of the Olympics are spreading light on international issues. Their spot on the global stage displays just one of the ways migrants contribute to society. As athletes sprint to the finish line in Rio, the Olympic spirit stands true in representing something greater than the medal in a world facing an array of global challenges.

As you watch the pageantry and competition of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, you may recognize names like Michael Phelps, Carmelo Anthony, or Alex Morgan. But despite being ranked #1 in the United States at his sport of judo and boasting over 25,000 Facebook likes, you may not yet know Nick Delpopolo.

Nick, a migrant born in Montenegro, is a true exemplar of what the American Dream constitutes to thousands of people. While Nick has been training for gold since he was 5, it is an anomaly that he has even had the chance. The first years of Nick’s life were spent in an orphanage in Montenegro, living in poverty.

With an uncertain future, Nick was adopted by Dominic and Joyce Delpopolo and brought to the U.S, an opportunity that forever changed his life. Most living in poverty never get the chance for a better life. While many seek it for themselves and family, there are a host of obstacles facing them. Nick’s journey from an orphanage in Montenegro to wearing the stars and stripes of the USA at the Olympics can help provide a glimmer of hope for the American dream that still exists.

As he represents the U.S this summer he is one of 44 immigrants representing the country and positively contributing to its efforts. Nick works to inspire young competitors in judo and shows that no matter where you begin, you can have a positive impact in your new country.

Below is an interview with Nick, held just before the start of the Rio 2016 Olympics

Q: This summer in Rio you will be representing the U.S judo team at the Olympics seeking gold. As you put on the new gear and see your dream becoming reality, how does it feel to represent the U.S In your hunt for gold?

A: It feels amazing and I'm definitely trying to take a lot more time to appreciate it this second time around.  I am feeling very nostalgic and thankful to my family, Coaches, Sponsors and girlfriend who are every bit a piece of this Olympic Team.

Q: You’re currently ranked #1 in the sport of Judo in the U.S. What does it mean to you to have young competitors in the sport looking up to you as the nation’s best?

A: I work with kids a lot and I remember being a kid myself and looking up to the older elite athletes. I remember how cool it would make me feel when they would spend a few extra minutes talking to me and I try to do the same for the kids  that look up to me now.  I'm constantly giving away my Olympic apparel and memorabilia to kids to help inspire them for the future and it means a lot to me to have the privilege of being able to do that. 

Q: While you were very young when you lived in Montenegro, you have made a remarkable journey to become a U.S Olympian. What do you think your story says to those, old and young, who hope for a better life migrating to  the U.S.?

A: I think I'm living proof that you can truly live the American Dream no matter what the circumstances are that you bring you to America, It truly is the land of opportunity.

Q: As the whole world watches this summer, how do you think your journey and the spirit of the Olympics can provide hope to those facing challenges across the world?

A: The International Judo Federation has a slogan "Judo: more than sport" and I truly believe that that's what the Olympics are all about. It brings the world together in unity, spirit of sport and gives hope and inspiration to many in tough  times. People get to see Olympians and learn their back stories and see how many of them rose up through difficult circumstances to earn their places in Rio and it's an experience of a lifetime for not just the athletes but those who are  cheering loudly from all across the world.

Q: When people see you compete for the U.S this summer, they may have no idea about your humble beginnings. How does it feel representing one of the 44 foreign born members of Team U.S.A. this year?

A: I feel extremely fortunate and humbled that I was given this opportunity in life.  I feel that I am not only competing for the U.S. but for Montenegro as well and I am proud of the Montenegrin blood flowing through me.  I represent that a kid from an orphanage in a small village can make it to the highest level of sport and I want the people of Montenegro to know that I fight for them as well and I love my heritage.

Update: Nick’s Olympic adventure ended in the quarter-finals and he ultimately finished 7th in his division.

Lawrence Ekin collaborates with the external relations department at USAIM/IOM Washington D.C. He is a political science major at Philadelphia’s Temple University and will graduate in 2017