RIO DE JANEIRO: Congolese refugee Popole Misenga won over the Rio Olympic judo arena crowd Wednesday with a surprise victory, followed by a brave loss to the world champion.
Misenga, who is part of the unprecedented team of 10 refugees competing under the Olympic flag, defied the odds to defeat India’s Avtar Singh, ranked 71 in the world in the 90kg category.
Through to the last 16, Misenga faced Kwak Dong-Han of South Korea, the world champion and world number one.
The three-quarters full arena threw itself behind Misenga, who asked for asylum in Brazil in 2013, cheering his every move and booing the referee when a penalty went against him.
For four minutes of the regulation five minute bout, Misenga held his own in a defensive performance sprinkled with attempts to throw the champion. The crowd chanted: “Popole, Popole!”
The South Korean ended the drama with a sudden immobilization which had the refugee tapping out for an ippon.
When the opponents rose to their feet to bow, the applause for Popole made it sound as if he had been the winner.
“I think he did something heroic,” said Geraldo Bernardes, the veteran coach of four Brazilian Olympic teams, who has overseen Misenga and fellow Congolese refugee Yolande Bukasa since they came to him penniless and traumatized.
Bukasa’s Olympic experience was not so lucky, losing in the first round to Israel’s Linda Bolder, who is 11th ranked in the world and went on to lose in the quarter finals.
But both refugees emerged from the mat beaming with pride in their journey from the horrors of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s war to the Olympic Games.
“These fights are not just about judo,” Bukasa said. “This is a fight for my life.”
Bukasa said she hoped her family in Congo was sharing in her happiness — but that she has no way of knowing.
“If they are alive, if they saw me, (my message is) I really miss them,” she said.
“My family has become the Brazilian people cheering for me.”
Misenga said his credible showing in fending off the South Korean’s fearsome arsenal of throws, forcing him to go for an immobilization, had inspired him to reach new heights.
“I managed to get in. I fought and won one fight, I fought the champion of the world and he didn’t manage to throw me,” Misenga said.
Having the crowd behind him was “very emotional,” he said. “Brazil was rooting for me!”
Bernardes that the two refugees have had far less time to train than most Olympians.
Misenga’s battling loss stood out, Bernardes said, because Kwak “has a very hard throw. Everyone respects and fears his throw. But he didn’t manage to do the throw on Popole.”
Misenga and Bukasa arrived in Rio with the DR Congo team for the 2013 World Championships.
They grew up in the horrific wars ravaging their homeland and been subjected to cruel conditions while training for judo, including being locked up and given half rations after losing.
When their food vouchers in Rio were stolen by corrupt team officials, they ran.
Finally the pair came to the Instituto Reacao, a Rio de Janeiro NGO and training facility founded by Olympic bronze medalist Flavio Canto, whose other success stories include new gold medalist Rafaela Silva.
“They didn’t have money or clothes or kimonos,” Bernardes recalled.
Popole in particular was mentally scarred, the coach says. “He was brutal,” he told Agence France-Presse.
After so much suffering, the Olympics has opened a door to a new future.
Still pouring with sweat from his bout, Misenga laid down a challenge for himself — and refugees everywhere.
“I’ll become stronger to face the world champion again,” he said.
“I’m sending a message to the children of the Congo and to refugees too: believe in yourself.” AFP