RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - When Congolese refugee Popole Misenga stepped out to face the defending world champion in Wednesday’s under 90-kilogram Judo competition he figured he’d be on the floor immediately.
Instead, with the entire stadium chanting “Po-po-le,” it took South Korea’s Gwak Dong-han four minutes to defeat Misenga, who is a refugee in Rio and won his first match of the day despite not having competed since 2003.
“I walked in and heard all the fans, I mean I am from the refugee team! I felt so happy,” Misenga, donning a bright blue kimono, told journalists after the competition. “I realized, I am also a judoka.”
The 10 members of the first ever refugee team have been big crowd pleasers in Rio since they marched into the opening ceremony to thunderous applause under the Olympic flag.
“What Popole did today was nothing short of heroic,” his Brazilian coach, four-time Olympian Geraldo Bernardes said. “Everyone is afraid of the Korean,” he added in reference to Gwak, who won last year’s 90-kilogram world judo championship.
Misenga was nine when he fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and was separated from his family. He wandered for eight days in the forest before being rescued and taken to a refugee center in the capital Kinshasa.
There, he was introduced to judo and quickly progressed. Misenga was selected to represent the DRC at the 2013 world championships in Brazil.
Once in Rio, however, he was abandoned without money or papers by his coach and, along with fellow refugee team member Yolande Bukasa Mabika, fled to the streets.
After surviving on help from neighbors and occasional jobs, Misenga registered as a refugee and resumed practicing judo.
Bernardes met Misenga and Mabika when neither had an apartment and were frequently going hungry. Even now he has constant reminders of how little they arrived with.
“We went out and bought her (Mabika) the white shirt she needed for competition yesterday,” he said. Yolande had a tough first round match in the women’s under 70-kilogram division and lost to Israel’s Linda Bolder.
Bernardes also coaches Rafaela Silva, who won Brazil’s first gold medal of the Games on Monday and was born and raised in Rio’s notorious City of God slum.
Misenga has not seen his DRC family, including two brothers, in 18 years. He now has a Brazilian wife and a young son.
Asked to give a message to the people of Congo, or to the world’s refugees, Misenga said: “Believe in sport. Do not give up your dream.”
As for his judo career, he reports feeling more motivated than ever.
“I will never stop again. This is my life’s profession. I will get stronger and I will come back and get him (Gwak).”
“I’ll win a medal,” he said. “You wait and see.”
Additional reporting by Chris Gallagher; Editing by Frank Pingue