Cyrille Tchatchet II: The weightlifting refugee who went from homeless to Tokyo Olympics hopeful

The Cameroon-born athlete fled his team camp at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. After a period on the streets he contemplated suicide, before rebuilding his life to become a British weightlifting record holder, now targeting the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

By Andrew Binner
Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Cyrille Tchatchet II has a ritual that he completes the night before all of his weightlifting competitions.

“I tend to eat celery and then I have a very hot bath,” the IOC Refugee Athlete scholar told Olympics.com with a smile. “I do that before all my competitions, but I can't explain why I do it!”

One explanation could be that Tchatchet is reminding himself of a few simple pleasures he once couldn’t enjoy.

It was only seven years ago that he was homeless, hungry and destitute in the British seaside town of Brighton.

He had just fled from his national team camp at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, to avoid returning to his native Cameroon.

After a period of living on the streets, he had almost lost hope. But after summoning every last drop of his strength, and with a little help from some kind individuals that believed in him, he was able to survive, rebuild his life and eventually thrive.

Today, the 25-year-old is a multiple British weightlifting record holder, is hoping to compete at the Tokyo Olympic Games, and has completed a degree in mental health nursing in order to help others.

This is his inspiring story.

Cyrille Tchatchet II fled the Cameroon team camp after finishing fifth at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
Picture by © UNHCR/Bela Szandelszky

A tough start in Cameroon

Tchatchet’s story begins in Yaounde, the second-largest city in the west-central African country of Cameroon.

His parents divorced when he was five years old and, along with his five other siblings, he was raised by his mother in poor conditions.

The family had so little money in fact, that Tchatchet and his siblings were often kicked out of school for not paying their fees.

“She had nothing,” he continued. “She sold food next to the road. Before eventually owning a little restaurant, and then a shop.

“When we got kicked out of school, we would come back home and my mum would send us back with what little money she had. You can imagine how many times my brothers and I got kicked out of class. But despite all of this, we still managed to pass our secondary school exams.

“I saw the picture on Saturday, and I started weightlifting on that Monday.” - Cyrille Tchatchet II to Olympics.com

One day at his cousin’s baptism, Tchatchet saw a framed photo on the wall of his uncle who was weightlifting.

The then 14-year-old was immediately captivated, and the moment changed his life forever.

“It was very random,” Tchatchet said. “I saw it and I was like, “Wow, I want to do this.”

“So I told my mum, who put me in touch with my cousin's cousin who was in the sport, and that's how it started. I saw the picture on Saturday, and I started weightlifting that Monday.”

Tchatchet took to the sport immediately and started competing internationally for the Cameroon national team.

When he wasn’t at the gym, he was studying for a degree in geography. But his progress was so fast in weightlifting, that he dropped out of university in order to focus on preparing for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, United Kingdom.

Escaping Cameroon

While things in weightlifting were going well, away from sport the athlete’s life was in danger.

After being selected to compete at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in the United Kingdom, he saw his chance to escape and start a new life.

Despite having to cope with these distractions in the background, Tchatchet managed to finish fifth in the 85kg event, before he fled the team camp.

“I literally just walked out of the village and into town and I ended up sleeping outside on the streets that night,” he said . “And then I met someone very randomly, who I told my story to, and they took me to London. Then they put me on the coach to Brighton.

“I honestly didn’t know anything about Brighton, but it was just as far away as possible.”

With no contacts and little clothing, Tchatchet struggled to survive. He was sustained by spending what little money he did have on boxes of biscuits from low-cost supermarkets.

Tchatchet survived while homeless in Brighton by eating boxes of biscuits.
Picture by © UNHCR/Bela Szandelszky

Contemplating suicide

Very soon, his money ran out, leaving Tchatchet with nothing. With any hope of a better life starting to fade, he contemplated suicide. It was his lowest moment.

“I decided to jump or something like that,” he said. “And then I saw a sign for the Samaritans on the cliff. It said something like, “If you aren’t feeling good, you can call us,” he said of the charity advert.

“They had me on the phone for a while, I can't remember how long, and suddenly I saw two police cars behind me. They took me to the station and from there.”

Initially, the refugee was fearful of being taken into custody by the police. Back home in Cameroon he had experienced brutal and often corrupt law-enforcement officials. He feared that he was in danger, or being deported.

But the officers in Brighton took Tchatchet to an immigration office, who helped him apply for official asylum. Far from being a danger, it was in his own words ‘the best thing that could have happened’.

Rebuilding his life and weightlifting career

I was moved from Dover immigration removal centre to London Colnbrook Immigration removal centre near Heathrow airport because my case was accepted into the ‘Fast Track System’. I was release from Colnbrook and then transferred to Birmingham into a hostel 

After a period of time in Dover's immigration removal centre, Tchatchet's case was fast tracked, and he was moved to a London immigration removal centre. From there, was was released and transferred to a hostel in Birmingham.

With his housing situation finally secure, he was able to address an area of his life that drastically needed attention: his mental health.

The trauma he had suffered in Cameroon and while being homeless had led to bouts of depression and anxiety. He finally had access to a doctor, who prescribed him antidepressants and exercise.

Fortunately, the patient had already started to do some light work at the gym, and needed no second invitation to get back to competing in his sport.

I Googled “Birmingham Weightlifting Clubs”, and the nearest one was at Birmingham University,” he said. “I watched the guys training and after some days I started to train with them.

“One of them took me to a different club where he also trained, and that's how I met my coach in Birmingham. He said that I can call him any time, and he actually gave me the keys to the club so that I could train whenever I wanted!”

It proved to be the perfect medicine. On top of improving his physical health, Tchatchet rediscovered his independence, and community of friends.

“One advantage of weightlifting is that it's like a social club. It brightened my mood a bit because I also found a friend who was very kind, found out about my story and cared for me,” he said.

“The support I received from these friends was vital in my rehabilitation.”

Becoming a mental health nurse

Kindness played a key role in Tchatchet’s rehabilitation, and he wanted to give it back to someone else in need.

He decided to train as a mental health nurse, using his own experiences to help people with conditions such as depression, schizophrenia and personality disorders.

In 2019 he was awarded a first-class degree from Middlesex University. His dissertation? You guessed it: The Effects of Exercise on Depression.

“The main learning is that you need to get busy, and there is a link between physical and mental well-being,” he said. “I think I'm a typical example of how positive exercise can affect somebody.”

Tchatchet became a mental health nurse to help others.
Picture by © UNHCR/Bela Szandelszky

Becoming an IOC Refugee Athlete Scholar

As a British record holder, Tchatchet had thought often about competing at the Olympic Games. As a refugee it seemed like an unlikely dream, but one day he was thrown a lifeline.

Word of the athlete’s story reached the International Olympic Committee, who offered him a Refugee Athlete Scholarship worth $1,500 a month on top of training support, with the goal of him representing the IOC Refugee Olympic Team at the Tokyo Olympics.

“It has been a very, very big support,” he said. “It's invaluable, because I'm able to pay my rent and pay for my supplements. I'm able to buy my equipment. I'm able to get treatment, pay the gym fees and everything. All I need to do now is train.”

Tchatchet is a British weightlifting-record holder and hopes to compete in Tokyo for the Refugee Olympic Team.
Picture by © UNHCR/Bela Szandelszky

The other obstacle Tchatchet has had to overcome in his preparations is a lack of international competition.

While he has been comfortably good enough to compete at the world’s top events, he has been barred from doing so due to his refugee status. The closest he came was at the British International Open, where he easily outlifted all of his rivals but was not awarded the gold medal due to his lack of a passport.

“I technically won the category,” he said. “I would have won by a big margin, but I wasn't given the medal because I didn't have a passport, I only had a travel document.

“So getting to Tokyo 2020 will be like a dream come true because all athletes dream of the Olympic Games. I would be really proud to represent the 68.5 million displaced people around the world.”

There is a French quote on Tchatchet’s Facebook page which translates to English as “The sun does not forget a small village, no matter how small it is.” It is an entirely fitting mantra for a man that proves greatness can be achieved from the most difficult circumstances.

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