'My life really changed after the Olympics'
- Popole Misenga was part of the first Olympic refugee team in Rio
- He was rescued by Unicef, aged nine, after his mother died
- A year on, he has been reacquainted with family members
It’s a place that on some days isn’t safe enough for him to go on a training jog through the streets sometimes frequented by drug dealers and the occasional presence of police.
But Misenga, who ran away from Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) team camp at the 2013 World Championships, remains eternally grateful that Rio gave him a home, helping him compete at the Summer Games last year.
“My life really changed after the Olympics,” Misenga told CNN. “I have a good life now. I don’t need to worry every day if I can feed my family. I’ve been supported by the IOC [International Olympic Committee] and Visa since last year,” he added referring to the US financial services company.
Judo has given him a life he often strived for since he was orphaned at the age of nine when his mother was killed. But the road to Rio hasn’t been easy.
“I was separated from my family when I was nine,” said the 25-year-old. “My mum got killed and I ran for days in the woods and I was rescued by UNICEF.”
It was at a training camp in the DRC that Misenga was first introduced to judo where his robust physical frame caught the eye of the coaches.
Gradually, he climbed up the ranks although he confesses it was more under sufferance than for any great love of the sport.
“I was entered for the national team but things were difficult back there,” he says. “They just wanted us to win medals and, if we failed, we would suffer.”
The DRC’s Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment regarding Misenga’s description of his treatment.
Walking the streets in Rio
In Rio four years ago, he finally saw the chance of an escape along with another Congolese competitor, Yolande Mabika, who made the decision to abscond from the team before returning to fetch Misenga a few days later.
“It was a very hard time,” he says. “I didn’t have a home, money or food. Everything was missing in my life.
“I was hungry and it was a lot to suffer. So I decided to stay here, that I’m going to find a way, that someone will help me but I won’t go home.”
The pair walked the streets until they met another refugee from Angola who introduced them to the Bras de Pina favela, and Misenga scraped around for any work he could get.
The institute is run to help disenfranchised youth affected by poverty and crime. There, he benefited from the tutelage of the institute’s co-founder and veteran Olympic coach Geraldo Bernardes.
With limited preparation for Rio, Misenga made the refugee team and, against the odds, won his opening contest against India’s Avtar Singh.
Seemingly on his way out of the competition in a hold, chants of “Popole” spurred him off the mat to perform a shoulder throw to win the contest outright.
One round away from the quarterfinals, he then faced world No. 1, Gwak Dong-han, lasting the near four-minute duration of the bout before being beaten.
“It was an amazing time in my life — I couldn’t believe it was happening,” he said of his Olympic experience.
“I think people really liked the refugee team. I didn’t dare hope we would have people cheering for us but, when I came to the judo mat, I heard the crowd calling my name. It was really amazing.”
In some ways, his fame was short-lived — although he is still well known in his favela. And the financial backing has afforded him simple pleasures – like buying a new fridge for the home he shares with his Brazilian wife Fabiana and the couple’s two children, Helias and Maria-Eliza, as well as Fabiana’s three other children.
“People don’t now recognize me on the streets,” he said. “Only in my community because only they know the whole story.”
Misenga had set himself three core ambitions at the Rio Games. One was to raise the profile of the world’s 65 million refugees, another was to win a medal, and most importantly to become reunited with his family back in Africa.
He has since made contact with one of his brothers for the first time in almost 15 years — his first words to him down the telephone were “I’m alive!”
“I still compete when I have the chance and this year I won a bronze medal at the Judo Open tournament in Rio,” he said.
“I am training a lot so I can go to the Olympics again, and this time it will be difficult to overcome me. I will win a medal.”