Nepal: Olympic gold medallists use sport to help refugees in UN-backed initiative

Nepal: Olympic gold medallists use sport to help refugees in UN-backed initiative

Takako Takagi
Three members of Japan’s gold medal-winning volleyball team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics have visited a camp in eastern Nepal to share their skills and knowledge of the game with refugees from Bhutan in an initiative backed by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

Three members of Japan’s gold medal-winning volleyball team at the 1976 Montreal Olympics have visited a camp in eastern Nepal to share their skills and knowledge of the game with refugees from Bhutan in an initiative backed by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR).

“It is great to see how sports can bring refugee and local communities together and also encourage girls to actively participate,” said Kaoru Nemoto, who heads the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in the nearby town of Damak.

“It feels great to be here,” said Olympian Takako Takagi, who with her teammates routed the Soviet Union’s squad 3-0 to capture the gold medal in Montreal. “More than technical training, we want the refugees to have fun and learn how to work as a team.”

Ms. Takagi and her two of her former teammates, Hiromi Ikeda and Katsuko Tanaka, also donated volleyballs, special shoes and other equipment during their two-day visit to Beldangi II camp, one of seven camps hosting 106,000 Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.

Many of the children and teenagers in the camp – who had previously been using cheap balls to play – could barely contain their excitement when presented with professional volleyballs, and scores participated in morning training sessions with the Olympians.

“We are happy to get the opportunity to learn and play with the Olympians,” said camp resident Ram Bahadur while practicing with his friends on a grassy football field.

The three Japanese volleyball players recently established an aid agency called Montreal Kai to promote sport among youth.

“These kinds of recreational activities are needed in the camps to keep the youth positively engaged,” said Binod Khatioda, who works with young people in the camp.

The visit concluded with a volleyball tournament in which teams from all seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal, home to 106,000 people, competed.

“It’s definitely not a one-shot deal and we will surely find an opportunity to come again,” said Ms. Takagi, a Volleyball Hall of Fame inductee and a silver medallist at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. “I have made the girls promise that they will practice regularly, so I can check how much they have improved by the time I return.”

Given the success of the inter-camp tournament in which girls and handicapped children participated, plans are under way for another large competition on the occasion of World Refugee Day on 20 June.