Congolese refugee Popole Misenga won over the Rio Olympic judo arena crowd with a surprise victory, followed by a brave loss to the world champion.
Misenga, who is part of the first ever 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.
The crowd threw themselves 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 fight, Misenga held his own in a defensive performance sprinkled with attempts to throw the champion. The crowd chanted: “Popole, Popole!”
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The South Korean ended the drama with a sudden immobilisation which had the refugee tapping out.
When the opponents rose to their feet to bow, the applause for Popole made it sound as if he had won.
“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 traumatised.
Bukasa’s Olympic experience was not so lucky, losing in the first round to Israel’s Linda Bolder, who is ranked 11th 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 her happiness – but she has no way of knowing.
“If they are alive, if they saw me, [my message is] I really miss them,” she said.
Misenga’s battling loss stood out because Kwak “has a very hard throw,” Bernardes said. “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 had been subjected to cruel conditions while training for judo, including being locked up and given half rations for 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 charity and training facility. After so much suffering, the Olympics is a fresh start.
“I’m sending a message to the children of the Congo and to refugees too: believe in yourself,” said Misenga.