Refugee wrestling his way onto first-of-its-kind Olympic team

There will be a new team competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. For the first time, a team will be composed entirely of refugees from around the world.

Congo's Popole Misenga could be the first member of Team Refugee

Popole Misenga fled war in the DRC and is hoping to compete under the Olympic flag (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

When Popole Misenga started training at the Instituto Reacao judo club on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, his opponents knew there was something different about him.

Of course, Misenga — about 5-9", 185 pounds, hair in short dreads — was from Africa and didn't speak Portuguese. But it was more than that. It was the way he competed, they said, even in practice. As though he was fighting for his life.

Now Misenga is loosening up before evening practice, speaking in broken French, his second language.

"I come from a province in the Congo, Bukavu, I was fleeing war," says Misenga. "There in my country, things are bad. I didn't have any family."

His mother was killed and his brother disappeared during the five-year war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and its aftermath. To escape the fighting, he put everything he had into a different kind of combat: judo. He discovered he was good.

Coach Geraldo Bernardes says training against Brazilian Olympians will help Misenga realize his dream of making the team. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"I won the championship in Kinshasa, I was the champion of the Congo," Misenga says. "If I represent my country, I win nothing … $300. A champion's worth $300."

Then, in 2013, he was invited to compete in the world championships in Rio. That's when Misenga saw his chance. That's when he decided he wasn't going back. 

He didn't speak Portuguese, residents of Rio didn't speak French. But it didn't matter.

"Judo is judo, anywhere in the world," Misenga says. "It's universal." 

Three times a week, he embarks on a two-hour commute to training from the Rio slum he now calls home.

While Misenga grapples with one opponent after another, his coach Geraldo Bernardes prowls the mat with a long stick in one hand. Every so often he prods Misenga, shouting instructions.

Over the last two years, more often than not, Misenga has been holding his own against tough Brazilian opponents. So, Bernardes thought: maybe Misenga had a shot, if not at a medal, than at least qualifying.

Misenga, about to defeat an opponent, his third of the evening's practice. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"He's training with athletes who will probably compete in the Olympic Games," Bernardes says, "so I think that he will have a good performance in the Olympics." 

The question was: For whom would he compete? He wasn't eligible to represent Brazil. And he wasn't willing to represent the DRC. But this year, for the first time in Olympic history, he'd have a third choice.

Recently IOC president Thomas Bach announced the details of a new squad, Team Refugee Olympic Athletes. Its members will compete under the IOC flag. A handful of athletes have already done that in previous years — athletes whose countries had ceased to exist or hadn't yet been officially born. But for refugees, it will be a first.

The IOC has identified 43 potential refugee athletes. Over the next couple of months, it will formally invite those who qualify to be part of the team, which will likely be composed of five to 10 athletes. Misenga is widely expected to be the first.

"I am proud, very proud. I will be the first refugee in the Olympic Games. If it works out," Misenga says.

His coach says he believes in him, and tonight Bernardes sees plenty of reasons why: Misenga throws his first opponent, then performs an arm bar on his second, forcing him to tap out.

There are better technicians in the gym; several are already world medallists. But his hunger, he says, is a weapon. He knows what making the team would mean. 

"It sends a loud message to the world. … If you're a refugee," he says, "you can keep hope in your heart."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.