RIO DE JANERIO (Reuters) - With tears streaming as he spoke of one day being reunited with the brother he lost in the terrifying chaos of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war, Popole Misenga showed the potential power of the Olympics’ Refugee Team on Saturday.
It is not often a room packed with sports journalists breaks into spontaneous applause but it seemed the only adequate response to Misenga’s moving account.
He explained how he went from a boy hiding in the forest to escape the appalling violence in his homeland to a man sitting on a stage addressing the world’s media as part of the build-up to his appearance in the Rio Olympic judo competition.
“I can hardly believe I’m here with so many people listening to us,” he said at a news conference to introduce some of the members of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Refugee Team, who will compete under the Olympic flag.
“When I think of those things all those years ago I feel sad. I haven’t seen my family for 18 years. I have two brothers, I don’t know what they will look like now as we were separated when we were small.
“If you can see me on TV now I am alive and well and striving so that one day I can get a ticket for you to come here and live with me,” he said, his voice quivering as he wiped away the tears. “I send my hugs and best wishes wherever you might be.”
Misenga was nine when he fled the violence that tore the African nation apart and, separated from his family, wandered for eight days in the forest before being rescued and taken to a refugee centre in the capital Kinshasa.
He was introduced to judo there and quickly progressed to a level where he was selected to represent the DRC at the world championships in Brazil.
Once in Rio de Janeiro, however, he was abandoned without money or papers by his coach and, along with team mate and fellow Refugee Team member Yoland Mabika, fled to the streets.
“I had two difficult years in Brazil. I didn’t have anything to eat, I didn’t have papers, I spoke only French and I went to the street to get food,” he said.
Eventually, with help from a refugee centre, he was given asylum and returned to judo. He was then taken on as part of the IOC’s Refugee Team and, speaking confident Portuguese on Saturday, said he intended to grasp the opportunity.
“I am not sad that I cannot carry the flag of my country because I represent refugees around the world and so I am competing under the flag of all their countries,” he said.
“Sport has transformed my life. Through judo I’ve learned respect, discipline and focus. But this is not just a struggle for sport, it is a struggle for life.”
Misenga has been training under former Brazil national team coach Geraldo Bernardes, a veteran of four Olympics in a sport topped by only volleyball and sailing in terms of medals won by the country.
“I’ve helped people win many medals at the Olympics so I was very happy to help,” he said.
“He was abandoned, there was nobody there for him, but for him and others like him sport has helped him develop as a person; to become confident, become a part of society.
“He is competing for a medal here but his gold medal is humanity.”
Editing by Ken Ferris