Jeffrey Julmis (HAI) – Athletics
Not every athlete acting like Usain Bolt before the start gets to perform on the track like Usain Bolt. Jeffrey Julmis of Haiti had to learn this the hard way during the semifinal of the 110m hurdles. Julmis posed and winked at the camera…only to trip at the very first hurdle. It wasn’t even close. He just ran through it, stumbled and fell. The story could have ended here with Julmis, embarassed in front of millions of TV viewers, quietly leaving for the locker room. But Julmis hadn’t lost his sense for a good show, as well as his competitiveness. So he crawled beneath the second hurdle, got up, began to run again and finished the race, 15 seconds behind the winner. They had to disqualify him later, either for stepping out of his lane or for crawling under the second hurdle, I’m not quite sure of that, but he surely both began and ended his race in style.
Feyisa Lilesa (ETH) – Athletics
An Ethiopian winning a medal in a long distance run is not exactly a novelty, so it wasn’t initially a big deal when Feyisa Lilesa crossed the finish line of the men’s marathon in second place, on the final day of the Games. But there was something special about it. Some 50, perhaps 100 metres before the finish, Lilesa raised both his arms, formed fists and crossed his wrists above the head. He finished the race like that, which was quite obviously a symbolic message, although it was at first unclear what exactly he meant. His explanation in subsequent post-race interviews left reporters speechless, both in shock and in admiration. Lelisa said, it was a deliberate protest against the dire situation in his country. He referred to the plight of the Oromo people, a large ethnic group to which he belongs and which, according to his statement, is being oppressed and subjected to state-sanctioned violence. He added that he now feared going back to Ethiopia since he might get killed for saying this, but he felt compelled to do it. And indeed, he wasn’t on the flight back to Addis Abeba with the Ethiopian team.
I have to admit that I didn’t know much about the situation he spoke about, and I am actually a bit ashamed to admit that, but if only a portion of his accusations is true, this might have been the bravest of all the brave athletes in Rio.
Oh, by the way, the IOC, ever true to its reputation with regard to outspoken athletes (and political messages), has removed all pictures of Lelisa crossing the finish line from their Facebook page. On the other hand, as of now, I haven’t heard of any disciplinary proceedings by the IOC against him…
Popole Misenga (ROT) – Judo
The Refugee Olympic Team consisted of ten talented athletes, each with his or her own impressive and often tragical background story. As was the case with Popole Misenga. He practised judo in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Originally from the war-torn Bukavu area, Misenga had to flee from his home aged six after his mother had been murdered. He walked through the rainforest for a week before being rescued and taken to a centre for displaced children in the capital Kinshasa. It was there that he first came in contact with the sport of judo. In later years, the training methods became increasingly harsh in the worst sense. Misenga and his teammates were beaten constantly and even forced to live in a cage for prolonged periods of time after poor results at tournaments. And he wasn’t just in any given training group, he was a member of the national team. On top of all of it was the extremely dangerous and unstable situation in the DR Congo with civil wars raging for decades now.
While participating in the world championships in, coincidentally, Rio de Janeiro, Misenga and some of his teammates sneaked away from the team quarters, after being confined to their rooms and deprived of food, money and passports. He applied for political asylum in Brazil and was granted refugee status by the UNHCR in 2014. Due to the assistance of Brazilian judo coaches, Misenga almost immediately continued his sport. It wasn’t easy to connect with his Brazilian colleagues at first, but eventually he managed to do so. Misenga learned to speak Brazilian Portuguese rather quickly, he married a Brazilian woman with whom he now has a son, and he began to feel at home, for the first time in a long while.
And when his time came during these Games, he was ready. Misenga won his first bout against Avtar Singh of India. Despite being defeated by the Korean Gwak Dong-han, who would eventually win the bronze medal, his tournament can be described as the pinnacle of a true success story. For an athlete who had to overcome the darkest of times, and fought his way back into the light.
Rafaela Silva (BRA) – Judo
It was the day all of Brazil had been waiting for: the host country’s first gold medal. Instantly judoka Rafaela Silva became everybody’s darling, a national hero. It wasn’t always like that for her. Silva was born in Cidade de Deus (= City of God), arguably the most famous or rather notorious favela in Rio de Janeiro, immortalised in Fernando Mereilles’ film of the same title. Having, quite literally, fought her way out of extreme poverty, she went to London to represent Brazil in the 2012 Olympics. Unfortunately she got herself disqualified in her first bout for an illegal grip to the leg of her opponent. The Brazilian media and public reacted with unbelievable harshness. They told her that ‘the monkey should stay in her cage’, called her ‘Brazil’s disgrace’, sent her insulting, threatening, racist messages that brought her to the brink of ending her career. Apparently, if you win for Brazil at the Olympics, you’ll be loved by everybody, if you lose, shame on you! And if you dare to lose while coming from the poorer social classes…
In the end, Silva chose to continue her career, and it was most likely the prospect of fighting for Olympic glory in her hometown that kept her going. After winning the gold medal bout against Mongolia’s Dorjsürengiin Sumiyaa, Silva was, understandably, in tears. She dedicated her medal to her family who had suffered under her unbearable situation after London 2012 as well. She spoke about how her whole life had been one long judo bout. And she went on to say: ‘The monkey you wanted to keep in a cage has become a champion.’
Yuliya Stepanova (RUS) – Athletics
They said she didn’t meet the ‘ethical requirements’ to participate in the Games, while Yuliya Yefimova, Ivan Tsikhan, Justin Gatlin and Sun Yang apparently did. They blatantly lied about not being able to accept neutral athletes to compete at the Olympics under the Five Rings, something which they had done on various different occasions. And then they graciously invited her and her husband as ‘guests of honour’ to the opening ceremony…
Yelena Isinbayeva, now an IOC member by the way, elected by the Olympic athletes despite herself being excluded from the Games because of the IAAF’s blanket ban, demanded a lifetime ban for her. She received numerous death threats through various channels and has to live in hiding, somewhere in the US. During the Games, her files on WADAs anti-doping database ADAMS, and only hers(!), were hacked, apparently in order to gain knowledge about her current location.
Yuliya Stepanova could have brought her case to the CAS or perhaps even the Swiss Federal Court, but she couldn’t afford the costs. Being totally removed from anything remotely close to sponsorship deals or public financial support, her small family even has trouble paying for their everyday bills, not to mention the unspeakable psychological effects of such a horrible situation. Several athletes, including discus thrower Robert Harting, Beckie Scott and Lauryn Williams have set up a crowdfunding project on ibelieveinyou.ch to support the Stepanov’s, at least by financial means. Little else can be done for them by us sports fans right now, except for one other thing: to not forget them, their bravery, their immensely valuable contribution to the fight against Doping, not only in Russia and not only in Athletics, to tell their story and make sure that their names remain in the minds of sports fans, journalists and IOC members.
Stefan Henze (GER) – Canoe/Kayak – Slalom
And then it all came to a standstill. It was the day when Isabell Werth and Kristina Bröring-Sprehe had won silver and bronze in the individual dressage, but there were no celebrations in the German House that evening, as would usually be the case, for the news they had received were too important and too devastating. Stefan Henze, who had won silver in Athens, 12 years ago, worked as a coach for the canoe-slalom team. A few days after the events were finished he was involved in a traffic accident, while driving in a taxi, on his way back to the Olympic Village. He succumbed to his injuries a few days later, surrounded by his family. Henze was 35 years old.
Both the president of the German Canoe Federation and later the Federal President Joachim Gauck found quite appropriate and moving words to pay tribute and highlight one more thing about Henze’s untimely death, that, serves as a symbol of hope and humanity, as well as potentially being a positive example to others, although it cannot diminish the pain about this terrible loss in any way: Henze was an organ donor. In accordance with his wishes and those of his family, his heart, liver and kidneys were transplanted to four people, probably saving their lives. It still takes courage to do something like that, to think about your own death, well ahead of your time, and make your own decisions about what should happen afterwards. And it is important that this part of such a tragic story is being told as well. Stefan Henze, whom I saw competing in Athens, 12 years ago, was exemplary, in more than one way.