Fighting for no country: the refugee judoka at the Rio Summer Olympics

For the fighter who has known true hardship and adversity, the concept of being a fighter takes on dual meeting.

Perhaps no one at this month’s Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro understands this better than Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika.  These two black-belt judokas are both refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo who competed in this year’s games as part of the newly-established Refugee Olympic Team.

The story of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century, and one of the great crimes scenes of imperialism.  The largest country in sub-Saharan Africa and immensely rich in resources, it was once one of the great hopes of Africa.  When it was liberated from Belgian colonialism in June of 1960 under the leadership of the visionary patriot Patrice Lumumba, the future looked bright.  But as it became apparent Lumumba had no intention of being a mere lackey for Western capital, the United States and Belgian governments conspired to topple his democratically elected government.  This great hero of African independence was arrested, beaten, tortured and executed by firing squad, before his body was dismembered and dissolved in acid.  A 2001 Belgian parliamentary inquiry and recently declassified CIA documents have since removed any doubt as to the two countries direct involvement.  Lumumba’s overthrow ushered in the 32-year dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, a notorious tyrant estimated to have embezzled as much as US$15 billion during his reign.  After three decades of entrenched corruption and ethnic division, in 1996 the country was plunged into a series of civil wars – the bloodiest conflict in modern African history – from which it still has not recovered.

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Both Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika hail from Bukavu in the east of the DRC, the region hit hardest by the recent civil wars.  Both lost their families in the conflict and were orphaned at a young age.  The two fighters had the opportunity to compete in the 2013 World Judo Championships in Rio de Janeiro, at which point they made the difficult decision to remain in the country and seek political asylum.  This was by no means the end to their struggles, just a new chapter in them: with no passports, little money and speaking no Portuguese, they have struggled to find work and shelter on the hard streets of Rio’s Brás de Pina neighborhood.  Interviewed in the days leading up to the Olympics, Misenga confessed he trains in sneakers he picked out of the trash.  Fortunately, they have benefited from the support of many in Brazil’s judo community.  In the months prior to the games, the two were welcomed into the Instituto Reação in Jacarepaguá, making a two-hour trek three times a week to train alongside Brazil’s national team.  The Brazilian Judo Confederation donated judogi uniforms and helped with food, transportation and medical costs.  SB Nation reported Brazilian Olympic medalist judoka Flávio Canto fundraised for the fighters as well.

Out of an estimated 8,500 refugees living in Brazil, Misenga and Mabika are the only two who qualified to compete in the Olympics.

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Interviewed by the UK Guardian in the days leading up to the Summer Olympics, Mabika said “I cannot fight for my country.  I will fight for the Olympics.  I will fight for all refugees in the world, to defend all refugees in the world.”

Although we would have loved to see medals for Misenga and Mabika, they fell short of these goals.  Mabika, who fought in the women’s 70kg division, was forced to tap by a triangle choke from Israel’s Linda Bolder.  Misenga won his first bout against India’s Avtar Singh in the men’s 90kg division, becoming the first refugee to win a judo match at the Olympics.  In his second fight, however, he was defeated by the current world judo 90kg division champion, South Korea’s Donghan Gwak.  It was a close match, with Gwak only securing a victory in the final minute with a lapel strangle.  “I’m going after him now. I will catch him” Misenga said afterwards, smiling and laughing.  “There will be a rematch.  Believe me, I will go after him to beat him.”

In defeat both fighters demonstrated the kind of humility and gratitude other athletes could learn from.  With smiles on their faces and beaming with pride, they reiterated how thankful they were for the opportunity to compete at the Olympics, and how honoured they were to face the world’s top judoka.  “It’s an honour to be in the Olympics. I fought with a champion,” Misenga told reporters.  “I’m just really happy to be here because everybody understands and knows about the refugee team, knows the refugee story.  People around the world, they’re all watching this competition right now.”

The two athlete’s achievements are even more impressive considering that they had not trained in years, as they were preoccupied with day to day survival on the streets of Rio.  After being accepted as competitors by the International Olympic Committee, they had only a few months of prepare.  “They only had four months to train, the others had four years,” their Brazilian sensei, Geraldo Bernardes, told reporters.  “It was already the medal for me, the medal of my heart.”

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Perhaps the most uplifting moments were the outpouring of solidarity from the Brazilian fans, who erupted in cheers for the refugee judoka, chanting their names from the stands as they walked onto the mats.  “When I entered the Olympic arena, I thought nobody would cheer for me” Misenga told reporters.  “And then I saw all the Brazilians rooting for me.  I was very emotional. I felt something different.”  Mabika echoed that sentiment: “I entered the stadium to fight and I felt a lot of people calling me, encouraging me.  I felt at home.  I feel that many people liked me.  I’m representing many nations and my victory is a victory for all refugees in the world.”

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