Refugees ready

Judokas to compete under Olympic flag

- Martin Rogers @mrogersUSA­T USA TODAY Sports

Athletes from the Congo find new life in Brazil and will compete in judo under the Olympic flag,

It has been a RIO DE JANEIRO tough road for the 10,000-plus athletes from more than 200 nations set to descend upon Brazil this summer and unimaginab­ly tougher for the small collection of displaced refugees who will compete under the Olympic flag.

Of all the stories that an Olympics inevitably brings, surely none are more remarkable or inspiring than those of 10 athletes selected to represent themselves, and the spirit of the Games movement, rather than a particular nation.

Until recently, refugee status made competing in the Olympics a virtual impossibil­ity, with every athlete needing to be put forward by an Internatio­nal Olympic Committee member nation.

A regulatory switch last year changed that provision and altered the lives of judo athletes Popole Misenga and Yolande Bukasa Mabika.

Misenga, 24, and Mabika, 28, hail from the ravaged Bukavu area of the Democratic Republic of Congo but sought asylum from the war-torn country during an internatio­nal tournament in Brazil three years ago.

“In my country I saw a lot of suffering, a lot of confusion, many men and women were killed,” Misenga told USA TODAY Sports in an interview at the Rio judo center where he and Mabika train.

To get there each day Misenga must travel nearly three hours by bus each way from his tiny home in a favela, or slum area, that he shares with his Brazilian wife and young son. Mabika has no permanent home and stays with kindly well-wishers.

“In Congo, women were raped, people had their limbs chopped off,” Misenga said. “So many things, you can’t even imagine. A lot of kids were kidnapped to be used as rebel soldiers or slaves.”

Both athletes’ childhoods were hideously blighted by the most corrosive period in African history. Two Congolese wars between 1996 and 2003 accounted for a reported 5.4 million deaths, from starvation, disease and violence. More than 2 million were displaced, yet, ostensibly, they were among the lucky ones.

Misenga said his mother was murdered when he was 6 and he lost contact with his father and brothers. He met Mabika, separated from her parents after a bombing attack on her village, in a refugee camp in the capital of Kinshasa as teenagers.

A judo training program at the camp offered an outlet and, eventually, a passport to the wider world. However, nothing came easy. Misenga and Mabika allege they were subjected to inhumane treatment by coaches.

“If you lose a medal, they put you in a cage,” Mabika said. “They leave you for 15 days inside with no food, only with a little coffee or pieces of bread.”

When representi­ng the DRC internatio­nally, Mabika said she was given a daily stipend so small that she could not afford to buy feminine products.

Regardless, the pair progressed judokas in Africa and were picked for the 2013 world championsh­ips in Rio. And in the Olympic city, opportunit­y unexpected­ly arose. The DRC coach disappeare­d from the team accommodat­ion — they still don’t know what happened to him — leaving Misenga and Mabika without food, money or accreditat­ion.

The pair decided to flee, but they had little understand­ing of the political asylum process. At first Misenga had to sleep in the streets, and Mabika went to live at the Ciudad Alta refugee village. After a 19-month wait during which they didn’t see the inside of a training facility, asylum was granted by Brazilian authoritie­s, and a return to judo enabled both to gain a foothold in the local sporting community.

They are now mentored by four-time Brazil Olympic coach Geraldo Bernardes, who was taken by their story and agreed to provide guidance and elite-level training.

“They have evolved a lot,” Ber- nardes said. “They are very serious and discipline­d, because in their mind the only way is to win. We can show them what is best, what they need to change or do to get to the medals.”

At first, Bernardes said, he had the rare problem of having to tell Misenga to be less intense in training. The punishment­s handed out during his time in the DRC meant he would treat practice bouts as if his life depended on it.

In June, IOC President Thomas Bach confirmed the pair would be part of a 10-strong Olympic refugee team of six male and four female athletes, backed by five coaches and five officials to shine a “spotlight on the world refugee crisis.”

“They will show to the world that despite the unimaginab­le tragedies they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through talent, skills and the strength of human spirit,” Bach said.

Misenga and Mabika carry warm smiles that hide their tortured past. Having the Olympics as a focus has been uplifting and cathartic.

“I will fight at the Olympics so I can change my life,” Mabika said. “Maybe I can find my family and bring them here. If they see me on television, my message is that I miss them a lot. I really want to be able to see them again.”

The duo will enter the stadium during the opening ceremony under the Olympic flag. If they make the podium, the Olympic anthem will play.

“Ah, the Olympic flag,” Misenga said with a smile when asked if his impending experience would mean more than when he represente­d the DRC. “The Olympic flag is better.”

 ??  ?? Yolande Bukasa Mabika, above right, and Popole Misenga, left, are judokas who are training in Brazil and will be part of a 10athlete refugee team competing in the Summer Games.
Yolande Bukasa Mabika, above right, and Popole Misenga, left, are judokas who are training in Brazil and will be part of a 10athlete refugee team competing in the Summer Games.

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