Popole Misenga aiming high with the IOC Refugee Olympic Team: 'Judo saved me'

Congolese judoka Popole Misenga is hoping to represent refugees on the biggest sporting stage there is once more.

5 min By Ken Browne
Popole Misenga of the Refugee Olympic Team celebrates after defeating Avtar Singh of India during a Men's -90kg bout on Day 5 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 2 on August 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
(Picture by 2016 Getty Images)

Popole Misenga has his sights set on a second Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer.

Selected as part of the first ever IOC Refugee Olympic Team at Rio 2016 Misenga made the final 16 of the judo -90kg category and only lost out to world champion and eventual bronze medallist Gwak Dong-han.

The Rio fans took him into their hearts in his adopted city, where he's lived and trained since seeking asylum in 2013, chanting “Po-po-le! Po-po-le!” as he fought in the Carioca Arena.

"I'm just happy to be here," a 24-year-old Misenga said at the time, knowing the hard road he had travelled to Rio.

At nine years of age he had to flee civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he lost his family and was found after eight days wandering alone in the jungle.

Taken to an orphanage in Kinshasa he discovered judo and it became his life.

“When you are a child, you need to have a family to give you instructions about what to do, and I didn’t have one. Judo helped me by giving me serenity, discipline, commitment – everything,” he said.

But the talented young judoka endured a lot of persecution and hard punishment.

Fearing for his life, Misenga decided to seek asylum and a shot at a better life in Rio de Janeiro. when in Brazil for the 2013 Judo World Championships.

Despite a rough start, things suddenly turned for him. Misenga was granted asylum in 2014 and could get back to doing what he loves: judo.

Now 28, Misenga is training hard for Tokyo 2020.

When asked about Rio 2016 and his selection for Tokyo 2020 Misenga told the International Judo Federation:

"I was so happy when I found out I was selected for the IOC Refugee Olympic Team. It meant a lot for me, to be able to represent all the refugees in the world on the international sports platform. It gives me strength on the tatami representing the millions of persons who had to leave their home and country. Judo has saved me" - Popole Misenga

Training in Brazil

Now 28, Misenga trains at Brazil's top facility which has produced Olympic and world champions.

“I live and train in Brazil, my adoptive country, at the Instituto Reação in Rio de Janeiro led by Flavio Canto and where Olympic and World Champion, Rafaela Silva started judo," Misenga told the IJF on World Refugee Day in June 2019.

“In my country, I didn’t have a home, a family or children. The war there caused too much death and confusion, and I thought I could stay in Brazil to improve my life,” he explained to the Refugee Team social media in 2016.

Judo is a way of giving others hope he said.

“I want to be part of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team to keep dreaming, to give hope to all refugees and take sadness out of them.”

“I want to show that refugees can do important things.” - Popole Misenga

Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika share a laugh with IOC President Thomas Bach at the Olympic Village in Rio on June 15, 2016. (Photo by Felipe Dana-Pool/Getty Images)
Popole Misenga and Yolande Mabika share a laugh with IOC President Thomas Bach at the Olympic Village in Rio on June 15, 2016. (Photo by Felipe Dana-Pool/Getty Images) (2016 Getty Images)

Olympic Solidarity and the IOC Refugee Olympic Team

Misenga is able to train and focus on his sport with the help of Olympic Solidarity Scholarships for Refugee Athletes.

Through training grants and the help of their host National Olympic Committees, refugee athletes are supported and encouraged to train and aim for the Olympics, but it goes beyond that too, helping athletes build a career and a better future through sport.

Misenga was selected as part of a 52-strong team of Refugee Athlete Scholarship-holders aiming to take part at the Tokyo Games.

Based in 21 host nations and hailing originally from 13 different countries, the athletes have overcome great adversity to be able to compete at the Olympic Games.

At Tokyo 2020 the team's chef de mission will be Kenya's former marathon world record holder Tegla Loroupe, who has the experience of performing the same role at Rio 2016.

"A signal of hope"

On the day that the good news came through for Misenga that he was on the list of the Refugee Athlete Scholarship-holders in 2019 and potentially on his way to Tokyo, IOC President, Thomas Bach said:

“On World Refugee Day, we celebrate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees. With the announcement of the list of Refugee Scholarship-holders, we want to show that refugees are an enrichment to sport and to society.

"All athletes announced are aiming to be part of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team Tokyo 2020. This team is the continuation of a human journey that started with the first IOC Refugee Olympic Team Rio 2016.

"The team will send a signal of hope to all the refugees around the world and will be a reminder to everybody of the magnitude of the refugee crisis.”

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