Against all odds: the story behind the refugee Olympic team

The story behind the refugee Olympic team

When the first refugee team was announced for the Olympic Games, production agency Just So took a risk and started work on a documentary that would go on to become one of the most important pieces of work of the year.

Every Olympics has its “thing”. Something bigger and more important, which transcends the Games, sport or its athletes. In 1900, it was the first woman to ever compete. In 1936, it was Jess Owens taking a defiant stand against the Nazis. In 1968, it was Black Power. In 2016, it was refugees.

Between London 2012 and Rio, the global refugee crisis had reached an unprecedented scale. In 2012, 11 million people were living as refugees or asylum seekers. A year before Rio’s opening ceremony, that figure was a record 20 million; roughly the equivalent to the population of Romania.

And so, for the first time, the International Olympic Committee and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) decided to permit a team comprised entirely of refugee athletes to compete in the Games.

It was a historic moment and one that was watched closely by the team at Just So, a small independent creative and production agency based in east London. In one afternoon, the company decided that it would make a film chronicling the journey of these athletes as they made their way to Rio.

“Being independent we could decide to do something, and commit to it, without having to go to boards,” says managing director Richard Ascott.

“We could go for it and see what happens. Of course, we couldn’t know that we would be able to speak to the relevant people or partner with the right people... But we put stage-gates along the way. We said: ‘Right, let’s commit some money and if we feel like it’s not a goer we can stop. But if we can go to the next stage, we will.’ So we kept making a decision to take a little more risk.”

The first of these ‘stage-gates’ was research, and the agency spent months finding out about the 43 individuals who would compete for one of 10 places in the team going to Rio.

“We put boots on the ground and got in touch with the UNHCR to start to understand the people,” explains Ascott. “By the time the team was announced we had spoken to or met 41 of the 43 potential athletes.”

During this time, Just So realised that the documentary had to try in some way to change perceptions of what it meant to be a refugee.

A few years ago, the media had whipped people into a frenzy with cautionary tales of what an influx of refugees to their country could do to health services and jobs. Fear and anger were the prevailing feelings.

Then came the devastating photographs of drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey. The image hit people like a sledgehammer and pity overtook fear.

And this pity lingers. But, as Ascott says, “when we talked to the athletes, we wanted to shift this story’s narrative to one of admiration. We wanted to change people’s perceptions about the word ‘refugee’.”

The research phase also gave it an ‘in’ with the UNHCR. Just after the announcement, only a handful of journalists were covering the story, but quickly other content makers, including agencies and brands, had similar visions of creating their own story around the Refugee Olympic Team.

“We got a head start because we’re small, independent, nimble and were able to self-fund, get out on the ground, and start to look into it.

“We were amazed to find that, aside from a few journalists, there was no one else out there with access to the athletes... What we learned after was that the UNHCR had thousands of requests for time with these athletes. The reason we got time was because we’d built up that relationship; the athletes and UNHCR trusted us.”

With the UNHCR’s backing, Just So realised that it needed to produce something more than just a documentary. In the weeks leading up to and then during the Games, the news cycle is dominated by stories of the successes and failures of the world’s most famous athletes, with the likes of Mo Farah, Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps garnering the most column inches.

During this time, the company approached Grey London, which came on board as a partner to co-produce the campaign.

Work then began on a 90-second edit which would act as a trailer to the documentary. They used a simple but effective match-cutting technique where archive footage of war zones and displaced people sat alongside clips of the athletes in training. For example, a shot of a swimmer pulling himself out of a training pool cuts to a film of a man pulling himself on to a rescue boat.

“Just So chose a match-cutting technique to tell the story of the athletes to demonstrate both the dark and the light in the struggle for success,” explains Jessica Ringshall, head of content production at Grey London. “It allowed the viewer to see where every refugee has been, but also what drives them. It allowed us to show the journey of all refugees and the positive ‘against all odds’ hope they have.”

Google agreed to host it on its homepage on the day of the Opening Ceremony, giving the teams a strict deadline of 00.01 on 5 August.

“It was an amazing tripartite between Just So, Grey and UNHCR. We were editing right to the wire. The email chain that had all the relevant sign off just got bigger and bigger. Although the ad in its current form is only 90 seconds, bringing all these different bodies along on the journey was a massive challenge,” says Ascott.

The project will continue to tell the story of individuals for the greater purpose of changing social perception of who and what refugees are and the trio will continue to work together to amplify this story.

“The UNHCR works tirelessly to create a legacy of change for refugees in various regions. Just So has incredible relationships with the individual athletes and an incredible ability to capture stories in documentary film. Grey will continue to guide the messaging, creative and project to the best it possibly can so as many people in the world see this complete story,” adds Ringshall.

The release of the feature-length documentary is expected in the coming months.

This article was originally published in 29 September issue of The Drum.

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