What Popole Misenga remembers most is the crowd chanting his name. After a lifetime of war and poverty in the Democratic Republic of Congo, here he was in Rio, competing in judo at the 2016 Olympics as part of the first international refugee team in history.
But now Misenga was down on the mat, pinned in an armlock by his Indian opponent, and seconds from crashing out of the Olympics in just one bout. Nobody, he supposed, would care.
Then came that chant: “Popole, Popole, Popole!” With a supreme effort, Misenga freed his arm and won the fight. Eleven months later, the 25-year-old doesn’t look like someone who ever had an arena full of Brazilians cheering him on.
You wouldn’t guess he’s an Olympian. He lives in a violent Rio de Janeiro favela, crammed with his partner and five children into two, tiny rooms. He’s still poor. And he’s still a refugee, more than 4,000 miles (6,600 km) from his African homeland. Yet that moment of glory feels fresh.
“My arm was almost breaking,” he recalls, emotion rising in his voice. “Then I heard people shouting ‘Popole, Popole, Popole’ and I thought, No: if people are cheering for me, I’m not going to give in.”
He holds a photo taken of him after the fight, arms raised to the crowd in the arena. “So much emotion,” he says. During the Olympics, Rio’s favelas felt like different planets to the floodlit stadiums and fan zones.
Even in ordinary times they can resemble ghettoes for the poor. In the northern Rio favela of Bras de Pina, Misenga and his Brazilian partner Fabiana have a tiny kitchen and a single box-like bedroom that they share with their seven-month old baby Maria-Eliza, two-year-old son Helias and three children from Fabiana’s previous partner, aged six, eight and 13.
“We can hardly sleep,” said Misenga, who sports short dreadlocks and massive muscles. In the dirt street outside, local men accompanied by stray dogs sit under a shack smoking marijuana.
Cars rarely pass. There are few shops. As in many favelas, Bras de Pina is a battleground for police and drug traffickers. Shootouts are a regular danger, as evidenced by a bullet hole in the apartment’s front wall. So Misenga’s daily commute to a judo club on the other side of Rio doesn’t always go as planned.
“The other day I wasn’t able to leave for training because everyone was hiding indoors,” he said. “I was going to go outside but because of my bag the bandits could confuse me for a policeman and the police could confuse me for a bandit.” Even jogging is perilous: it means crossing rival traffickers’ lines.
“They say, ‘You don’t live here, you live over there, you can’t enter here,’” Misenga said. “Running is impossible.” Ahead of the Olympics last August, Misenga was a celebrity.
He was one of just 10 refugees from around the world chosen to compete under the Olympic flag. International television crews flocked to Bras de Pinha to hear his incredible story. “The Olympics made me famous,” he said with a laugh. “People recognized me in the street. They’d say, ‘It’s that guy in the Olympics!’” -AFP