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Refugee status saved career

OLYMPICS: Refugee judoka Popole Misenga said he had to quit the Democratic Republic of Congo and train in Rio’s favelas to save his sporting career.


Saturday 13 August 2016, 03:00PM

Popole Misenga competed for the Games’ first ever refugee team in Rio. Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP
Popole Misenga competed for the Games’ first ever refugee team in Rio. Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP

Misenga and fellow Congolese Yolande Bukasa started to compete for the Games’ first ever refugee team in the men's under-90kg and women’s under-70kg categories respectively in Rio on Wednesday (Aug 10).

Both fighters live in Rio, having defected following the judo world championships in the city in 2013.

But Misenga said such drastic action was necessary to be able to keep fighting.

“I decided to stay in Brazil. I love sport, in Africa there’s no funding for athletes,” Misenga said. “There isn’t a good support network. I stayed here to look for a good support network, to find people who could help me, to at least prepare in a judo centre – that’s why I stayed in Brazil, to look for that.”

Misenga did not train for two years after arriving in Rio where he struggled, penniless and unable to speak Portuguese.

A friend introduced Misenga, who is now married to a Brazilian with whom he has a child, to former Brazil international fighter Falvio Canto.

The bronze medallist from the Athens Games in 2004, who is now a television presenter and commentator, runs a judo club in a favela in Rio where Rafaela Silva – who won Brazil’s first gold medal of their home Games on Monday – also trains.

“Flavio Canto took me to Reacao where Rafaela also trains. He introduced me to sensei Gerardo (de Moraes Bernardes, the head coach at the Reacao Institute).

“I returned to judo in Reacao, in Flavio Canto’s favela.”

Misenga also received support from the Brazilian Olympic Committee and says it was Canto’s idea for him to join the refugee team.

“It was his idea, he talked to me about it. He said: ‘Are you ready to take part in the Olympics with the refugee team? To do this all you need is courage’.

“Now it’s a reality for me. It’s important to be part of this refugee team.

Lemongrass House

“[In DRC] I earned nothing. I came here for the world championships and I earned nothing. That hurts my heart, just the fact that I earned nothing.”

Now that he’s at the Olympics, Misenga just wants to fight, like any other athlete in any other tournament.

“It’s my first time doing such a big competition as this. There are a lot of judoka that I know, everyone’s here to do their best, and me too.

“I’m here to do judo like the others, like in other competitions too.”

It’s a far cry from his troubled upbringing in a war-torn country, although he still has some contact with family members in the DRC.

“It’s difficult, my life was difficult there with war and the confused situation in Congo.

“My mother died, I don’t know where she is.”

He was contacted by an uncle, though, who said he’d seen him on television.

Misenga hoped he would be able to give his uncle something to celebrate on Wednesday.

“I’m going to be on the tatami (mat) at the 2016 Olympics – it’s a dream.

“I want to show what I know, here on the tatami.”



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