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Cyrille Tchatchet was walking home through the streets of Smethwick in 2016 when he got the call he had been hoping for since he stole out of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow with just a pair of shoes and a weightlifting belt to his name.
“It was my solicitor to tell me my application for asylum had been approved,” Tchatchet told the PA news agency. “All of a sudden, I felt like chains had been removed from my hands and legs. I was so happy, and ready to embark on the next stage of my journey.”
Tchatchet’s route to representing England in the men’s 96kg weightlifting category at this month’s Games in his adopted home city represents so much more than the 3,000 miles that separate Birmingham from Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, where he grew up and nurtured his love for the sport.
The 26-year-old has previously revealed to PA the remarkable series of events that saw him leave his hotel room in Glasgow and head to a notorious suicide spot in south-east England where he was “sure” he would have jumped had he not seen a sign for the Samaritans.
Arrested and initially taken to the Colnbrook Immigration Removal Centre near Heathrow, Tchatchet was subsequently relocated to a flat in Birmingham, within easy walking distance of many of the venues that will be hosting this summer’s Games, to await news of his application.
In the meantime, he represented the Refugee Team at the Tokyo Olympics, finishing 10th, and following confirmation of his successful application, set about the process of obtaining a UK passport and convincing his sport’s world governing body to rubber-stamp a switch in nationality that would enable him to represent England and Great Britain.
Today marks 1 year anniversary since I was given the opportunity to carry the Olympic flag into the Olympic stadium in @Tokyo2020 alongside five other Olympians from 5 continents. #refugeeolympicteam #refugees pic.twitter.com/lOvShzuRZB
— Cyrille Tchatchet II OLY (@Iicyrille) July 23, 2022
“The main reason I applied for a British passport was to be able to compete at the Commonwealth Games,” said Tchatchet. “Birmingham is very special to me, because it is where I arrived upon my release from the detention centre close to Heathrow.
“It is the place where I had my first room and my first keys, and where I could go in and out of my house to the gym and the shop. I was amazed by the beauty of the city and I liked walking around, going to Birmingham New Street and taking the train to Smethwick where I used to train.
“It is a place where I experienced a lot of difficulty, because my depression really got worse, but it is where I found help from my nurses and GP, a place where I was able to open up about my feelings. Birmingham is why I have been able to make the England team from nowhere, and (I want) to show to people that these things are possible.”
It is not only through success in his sport that Tchatchet hopes to inspire others who find themselves facing a similar plight. Having embarked on a training course during his asylum process, he continues to work as a senior mental health practitioner at an NHS facility in Sandwell, 10 minutes from the Aquatics Centre.
“It’s a very rewarding job” added Tchatchet. “You are able to see the positive impacts that you make on people’s lives, and it helps you as a person and as a professional. We all complain about things, but when you see what some people are going through, it makes you appreciate what you have a lot more.”
Tchatchet was one of 29 members of the International Olympic Committee’s Refugee Team in Tokyo last year, enabling him to fulfil a long-held dream that he feared had vanished in the wake of his decision to strike out alone into the Glasgow night, a reaction to the the threatening politics of his homeland.
“I trained for years with the dream of competing at the Olympics, the greatest competition ever, but it came to the point where I was contemplating suicide, and if you are thinking about killing yourself, all your dreams have really gone through the roof.
Sport bring people together by strengthening ties and celebrating ideals of fairness and hope. I am delighted and honored to be part of the Olympic movement.
— Cyrille Tchatchet II OLY (@Iicyrille) June 23, 2022
“Even when things started to settle down and I got back into training, I didn’t really see the Olympics as a possibility. I was just weightlifting for the social and physical and mental benefits. The dream had become quite slim.
“After everything that happened, representing the Refugee Team at the Olympics was a big thing for me.”
It also stirred his interest in maintaining his weightlifting career. Tchatchet was granted British citizenship shortly after the Tokyo Games and received his British passport in January, enabling him to make his debut in a British vest at the European Championships in Tirana in March.
Current rankings suggest the latest stage of Tchatchet’s improbable and inspiring journey could culminate in a place on the podium in Birmingham, a possibility he both covets and is able to put into sharp perspective.
“I believe if I perform on the day and hit some personal bests I won’t be far off a medal,” he added. “But the main thing for me is to be able to compete again in the Commonwealth Games, and to give something back to a city that is so special to me.”