London: Cyrille Tchatchet II is preparing to make history at the Tokyo Olympics — seven years after finding himself homeless and penniless on Britain’s streets.
In June, the weightlifter was officially selected for the International Olympic Committee’s refugee team in a ceremony co-hosted by IOC president Thomas Bach, making him the first UK-based refugee Olympian.
The IOC Refugee Olympic Team first appeared at the 2016 Rio Games.
In Tokyo, Tchatchet II will compete in the 96kg weight class on July 31 as part of a 29-strong contingent of displaced athletes.
“I feel like I was brought back to life. It’s a dream come true,” he told AFP. “I’m proud — it sends a big message of hope and solidarity.”
“I feel very excited not just to represent myself but about 80 million displaced people around the world. To represent refugees and the under-privileged will be a big responsibility,” he added.
The Cameroonian has a first-class degree in mental health nursing and worked on the frontline during Britain’s first coronavirus lockdown last March.
But his prospects appeared bleak when he first arrived.
The Yaounde-born athlete competed for Cameroon at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow before learning that it was not safe for him to return home for reasons he prefers not to reveal.
He fled the team base with just his backpack, some clothes and weightlifting gear and ended up homeless for two months in Brighton, a city in southern England.
“It was a very difficult experience. I had to escape. I was very young, very scared. I didn’t think much about the future,” he recalled.
Eking out a miserable existence under a bridge with no money, food or water and suffering from depression, Tchatchet II, haunted by suicidal thoughts, had sunk to his lowest ebb.
A call to Samaritans, a charity supporting those in emotional distress, pulled him back from the brink. Police removed him from the streets and an asylum application was submitted.
Tchatchet II’s mental health continued to suffer as the authorities rejected and reconsidered his application and transferred him to three separate detention facilities during a two-year period.
“When you’re waiting for an asylum application, it’s a very stressful experience,” he told AFP. “You always think, ‘What are they doing? Are they going to deport me?'”
– Record-breaker –
With his life in limbo, Tchatchet II found solace in sport and took British weightlifting by storm, achieving five English titles, three British titles and five national records across two weight classes.
Sporting success helped alleviate persistent mental struggles. “If you get into exercise, you forget those things. It played a very important part in my recovery,” he explained.
Having taken antidepressants for years, Tchatchet II received leave to remain in 2016 and seized the opportunity to study mental health nursing at London’s Middlesex University, to emulate the doctors who helped him battle his own psychological difficulties.
“In Cameroon, depression isn’t even a thing. If you have schizophrenia, they’ll probably say you have witchcraft, got into a sect, or paying for a bad thing you’ve done,” he said.
“Even here (in Britain), there’s always that stigma: ‘You’re a man, you shouldn’t have depression.’ We need to change our mindsets — it can affect anyone.”
– ‘Strong message’ –
Working 12-hour shifts three to four times per week, he dedicated his spare hours to training and was rewarded with an IOC scholarship, opening a pathway to competing at the Olympics.
Tchatchet II, who now works as a community health nurse in London, staffed a mental health ward when the pandemic engulfed Europe last spring and highlighted refugees’ contributions to their adopted countries.
“Being a refugee doesn’t mean you’re less important than other people. A refugee is a normal person, a refugee loves his country,” he said.
“Being a refugee at the Olympics or a nurse sends a strong message to people thinking refugees are coming to take other people’s jobs, criminals running away from things.”
Tchatchet II hopes to continue his postgraduate studies to become an advanced clinical practitioner. He also hopes to compete at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
And although not having British citizenship prevented him from competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, he and other refugee athletes now represent much more than their country of birth.