Refugee swimmer sends 'message of hope' despite missing medal

Tokyo 2020

Abbas Karimi of the Refugee Paralympic Team competes in the men
Abbas Karimi of the Refugee Paralympic Team competes in the men's S5 50m butterfly (Behrouz MEHRI/AFP)

Tokyo (AFP)

by Andrew MCKIRDY

Afghanistan-born swimmer Abbas Karimi has sent a "huge message of hope" despite missing out on a Paralympic medal, the refugee team's chief said Friday.

Karimi, who is one of six athletes representing the Refugee Paralympic Team in Tokyo, had set his sights on becoming the team's first-ever medallist after qualifying for the men's S5 50m butterfly final.

But his hopes were dashed with a last-place finish, leaving him visibly upset as he left the pool without speaking to reporters.

Karimi, who fled his homeland almost a decade ago in search of a new life in the United States, had said after qualifying that his efforts would be "a waste of time" without aiming for a medal.

But refugee team chef de mission Ileana Rodriguez said just making the final had been a "great accomplishment".

"I think it sends a huge message of hope," she said.

"We are representing 82 million people who are displaced around the world, and we have 12 million people who have a disability who are refugees. It's a huge message that someone can go this far."

Karimi, who was born without arms, qualified for the final in the morning heats with a personal-best time of 36.36sec.

No refugee team member -- Olympic or Paralympic -- has ever won a medal since the team was created in 2016, but Karimi sounded a bullish note after his heat.

"If I don't go for a medal, all the training, all the hard work will be just a waste of time," said the 24-year-old.

"We always train for a purpose, for a goal, and that's the gold. I'm going to go for the gold."

Karimi fled the conflict in Afghanistan at the age of 16 and eventually settled in the US.

Afghanistan's team is not in Tokyo, after the country's Paralympic committee said it was "unable to compete" in the wake of the Taliban's return to power.

The team, made up of just two taekwondo athletes, has since been evacuated from Afghanistan though officials have declined to say where they ended up.

Karimi said after his heat that he was concentrating on his performance, but that the people of his former homeland were on his mind.

"Afghanistan people are in my thoughts and in my prayers," he said.

"I'm representing the refugees and 80 million displaced people, and I represent the world."

Rodriguez said Karimi had been under pressure because of the situation in his homeland, but he had "a great attitude" and could "overcome many things".

"Certainly, he has been under a lot of pressure, like anybody who has a feeling for his country," she said.

"It's part of the process but you can see that he's been able to overcome it and do his best tonight."

- 'It means everything' -

Karimi started swimming at the age of 13 and soon fell in love with the sport after overcoming his initial fear.

He decided to flee Afghanistan three years later with the help of his brother and flew to Iran before embarking on a treacherous journey through the mountains into Turkey.

After four years there, he was granted permission to resettle in the US, and won a silver medal at the 2017 World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico.

Abbas Karimi is one of six athletes competing for the Refugee Paralympic Team in Tokyo (Behrouz MEHRI/AFP)
Abbas Karimi is one of six athletes competing for the Refugee Paralympic Team in Tokyo (Behrouz MEHRI/AFP)

As a part of the Paralympic refugee team, he carried the flag at the opening ceremony along with team-mate Alia Issa.

"It means everything because I'm a refugee," he said.

"It makes a lot of sense to represent the refugee Paralympic team and represent millions of displaced people around the world. We just want to give the world hope."

Karimi is also competing in the S5 50m backstroke in Tokyo.

"I think he's going to keep on fighting for that gold," said Rodriguez.

"Abbas is not a guy that settles that easily. I can totally see him coming back from that."

© 2021 AFP

AFP Tokyo 2020 Olympics Paralympics