These Striking Ads Juxtapose Olympic Heroics With Refugees’ Struggle to Survive

Swimming, jumping and running for more than a medal

Some news both excites and terrifies communities. One such example is winning the bid to host the 2024 Olympics, as Paris learned it did last month.

Such an honor is a mixed blessing, but that’s hardly France’s biggest problem right now. In case anybody forgot, we still have a refugee crisis on our hands.

To this end, human rights organization La Cimade launched “Living Is Winning.” As glorified sports advertising ramps up, the awareness campaign is determined to remind us of the thousands who commit feats of athletic prowess for greater stakes than medals.

Three 30-second ads were created and directed by Josiane Paris’ Valentin Guiod and adam&eveDDB London’s Min-Hyung Choi, with support from Josiane.

“Swim” opens with a close-up of a drenched, tremulating face as crowds cheer on all sides. “In 2024, athletes will swim to win,” it tells us.

A beating heart punctuates the work. As the camera pans out and the cheering fades, the man before us turns out not to be an Olympic swimmer at all. He’s alone, prostrate on a beach, partially covered in a space blanket. And the look we initially mistook for determination becomes abject exhaustion.

“Every day, refugees swim to live,” the ad concludes.

The ads that follow continue in this vein. What’s impressive is how easily the work manipulates our ability to gauge emotion, like an adland version of Magic Eye: Every look can be read from the framework of competitive spirit, until you get context, which changes your reading of that expression forever.

In “Jump,” the look in that first close-up almost seems playful, measuring a friendly foe. How high was his bar set?

As the scene widens, what we see is, of course, not a bar but an apartheid wall.

Last comes “Run,” whose first shot frames the hardened eyes of a woman in hijab. If you didn’t know better, it would be easy to imagine where that hardness comes from: It was only last year that the U.S. saw its first hijab-wearing Olympian, sabre fencing champion Ibtihaj Muhammad.

But there is no Usain Bolt moment here. As the woman collapses, exhausted, other runners divide to pass her by.

“We can never say enough how much force and courage these women and men need to risk their lives in search for a better place beside us, where they hope to live in dignity,” says president Geneviève Jacques of La Cimade. “Protecting human dignity and social inclusion is at the heart of La Cimade’s mission since 1939. Our organization will double our efforts to continue to host, help and support refugees, but also raise awareness of their alarming situation among the wider public.”

Each ad’s description reads, “For all the refugees, living is already winning,” a more elaborate take on the #LivingIsWinning hashtag. It intentionally launched the day after Paris was named host of the 2024 Olympics. On top of a subsite and three films, posters were created with help from award-winning photographer Espen Rasmussen.

“As a photojournalist, my hope and goal is always to open the eyes of the public—to create discussions, raise awareness and inform. To show people’s struggle, but also to show hope,” Rasmussen says. “That is why I provided images from my work to this campaign—so that all of us can learn something and hopefully react, with our mind and heart.”

Tens of thousands of people are still arriving in France each year. In July, the country committed to increase housing for refugees after the mayor of Grand-Synthe, a town not far from Dunkirk, tweeted photos of children living in a nearby refugee camp. France recently also committed to welcome 10,000 refugees from non-E.U. countries.