The weightlifter Cyrille Tchatchet stood on the edge of a cliff in Sussex contemplating whether to take his own life. Having left the Athletes’ Village at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, he feared for his safety if he were to return to his native Cameroon. Tchatchet had been forced to live rough in Brighton for two months, sleeping under a bridge, surviving on handouts and becoming increasingly depressed.
“I was in a new country,” he says. “I knew nobody. I felt ashamed. You feel suicidal all the time because you think you are just useless.” Fortunately he saw a notice, advertising the Samaritans, on the wire fence separating the grass from the steep drop. Tchatchet called the helpline, was persuaded not to jump and shortly afterwards two police cars arrived to take him to safety.
Now, seven years later, he has been selected as one of the 29 members of International Refugee Team to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, one of the more worthwhile ideas of Thomas Bach’s otherwise disappointing presidency of the International Olympic Committee.
The Samaritans’ intervention was just the beginning of a struggle to build a new life for Tchatchet in Britain. A two-year legal battle was needed to acquire refugee status. He remained depressed but got treatment and counselling from the NHS. The medical clinic encouraged him to resume a sporting career.
He also qualified for a degree in Mental Health Nursing, with first-class honours at Middlesex University. Tchatchet currently practises with a community mental health team in Harrow, in about one in 10 cases visiting people in their homes when they are unwilling to enter clinics. “I am giving something back to this country,” he says. “It is a place where there is freedom of speech, freedom of movement and many opportunities.”
In 2022 he will apply for UK citizenship, as he has been in this country for six years since receiving refugee status. He retains Cameroon citizenship but is not returning to the country where his family including his five siblings remain. He declines to say what made him decide not to go back, just saying it “was a long-term problem”.
Tchatchet, who will turn 26 during the Games, reflects on the events on his early days in England in a soft monotone: “It was a life experience, although unfortunately a difficult one. Back then I was very young. I did not seek help early enough. I have learned to be more open.”
His immersion in weightlifting has given him a separate focus to his work. He won British titles, competing as a resident of this country, in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and is now set for Tokyo, where so many countries have been restricted in the number of their entries or even barred from competing because of the level of positive drug tests in the sport.
Mike Pearman, a three-times British Olympic weightlifter, thinks Tchatchet is a candidate for the top six in his under 96kg class. “He is certainly a talent. He has good technique and is very consistent. If his citizenship comes through in time, he could be a very important person in England’s jigsaw for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next year.” Four British women, Zoe Smith, Emily Campbell, Sarah Davies and Emily Muskett, but no men, will be competing in Tokyo.
Built with thighs like traffic bollards, Tchatchet trains at the Middlesex University gym in a squad of up to 15. Mai Zetterling, the film director, who made a film about competitors at the 1972 Olympics, said that weightlifting was a sport that “gets lost in the suburbs. It is private, obsessive.” But Tchatchet says the individual self-centred drive to lift ever heavier weights is helped by the camaraderie, the social environment of the gym. “In weightlifting it is also easy to see your progress. There is a constant feeling of improvement.”
Tchatchet’s best lifts in the Olympic disciplines are a 165 kg snatch, in which the bar is pulled in one movement overhead while the competitor drops underneath it, and a 205 kg clean and jerk, where the athlete pulls the bar into the chest, squatting, stands up and then drives it overhead. On the basic strength movement of a deep knees bend or squat, Tchatchet has done 270 kg, more than the combined bodyweights of the two heaviest international rugby props.
These performances were done at 102 kg and Tchatchet wants to duplicate them at his lighter category at the Games, which will be a test because the more bodyweight you lose, the fewer kilogrammes you can usually raise.Shyam Chavda, the head weightlifting coach at Middlesex University, says that since Tchatchet arrived in Hendon his “trajectory of improvement has been phenomenal. Tchatchet is very coachable and we have good discussions. His success is down to his work ethic. We are working on such things as refining lifting the bar from the floor, so it is closer to the body and better controlled.”
Chavda says that Tchatchet is “good at controlling his eating,” essential in a sport where weight categories are so important. However, this does not stop him from occasionally enjoying a favourite Cameroon dish of yams with ndole, a soup made of bitter leaves and peanuts. The IOC gives all the members of the refugee team £1,200 a month towards their living and training expenses.
Tchatchet sees his participation in Tokyo not only as an opportunity to take part in the biggest sports event in the world but also as one to champion a good cause, seeing himself as a representative of the 80 million displaced people in the world.
He considers the refugee team, which was originally introduced for the Rio Games, as a “message of hope, a message of solidarity that being a refugee does not mean the end.” He knows.