For the first time, a team of refugees will compete in the Olympics

The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro will start in the traditional way: athletes marching in under the flags of the nations they're representing. But a new team this year will have no flag — and no country — to call their own. 

A team of refugees will be competing in the Olympics for the first time this year, amid a refugee crisis that the UN estimates numbers 20 million (with an additional 40 million people displaced within their own country). 

The total number of refugees worldwide is larger than the combined populations of Sweden and Israel. 

Among those 20 million people forced to leave their countries, the International Olympic Committee, which approved the team Wednesday, has so far found 43 athletes who are potentially eligible for the Olympics competition. 

The team will march under the flag of the IOC, which donated $2 million earlier this year for sports projects to help refugees. Only about 10 will probably end up actually taking part. 

The IOC identified three possible contenders in 2015, including a Syrian swimmer now living in Germany, an Iranian taekwondo competitor in Belgium, and a Congolese judo competitor in Brazil. 

Refugees will also take part in another part of the Olympic Games: the journey of the Olympic torch from Olympia, Greece, to Rio. 

A refugee will carry the torch through a refugee camp in Athens — a symbolic gesture given Greece's role as both the birthplace of the Olympics and ground zero of the refugee crisis in Europe. 

More than 100,000 refugees have already arrived in Greece in 2016 alone. 

by Libby Nelson

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