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Rio Olympics ‘a dream come true’ for judo athlete from tiny island nation

Nauruan judoka Ovini Uera, centre, seen behind flagbearer Elson Brechtefeld at the opening ceremony of Rio 2016 on Aug. 5, will carry his country’s flag at the closing ceremony.

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

When he was training for the Olympics on his tiny island nation, Ovini Uera began with a daily warm-up. He would first shoo away the chickens that gathered inside the gym, which had no walls, then grab a mop to dry off the rain that fell overnight through the roof, which was full of holes.

By 6 a.m., before he set off for his full-time job as catering manager at the local airline, Mr. Uera would begin preparing for his objective to compete in judo at the Olympics. To say he had to travel far to get to Rio is an understatement. Mr. Uera lives in Nauru, the smallest independent republic in the world, a place so remote that on a map it looks as if a crumb fell onto the expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

"I always had a dream that one day I would try to be at the Olympics," the 28-year-old says.

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Mr. Uera achieved his dream this month. He competed in Rio against the best in the world. Impoverished, speck-like, middle-of-nowhere Nauru shared the stage with the superpowers of sport, because the Olympics are where big and small compete side-by-side, top dogs and underdogs, all intent on the same goal of being a champion.

"Being here is like a dream come true. It is overwhelming," Mr. Uera said this week at the Olympic Village, the forest of high-rise towers that house more than 17,000 athletes during the Games. The entire population of Nauru could move into the village and there would still be plenty of room for others.

Nauru, population 10,000, is the smallest country to compete at the Rio Games. When its delegation marched into Maracana Stadium for the opening ceremony, you could miss it if you blinked. Elson Brechtefeld, competing in weightlifting, was the Nauru flagbearer. Mr. Uera followed behind. That completed the Nauru Olympic team. Team USA, on the other hand, was impossible to miss. It was a teeming and radiant mass of 550 athletes that included global celebrities such as Michael Phelps and Serena Williams. The U.S. Olympic team travelled to Rio with a support staff of 1,500 people. There are team doctors, chiropractors, infectious-disease specialists, massage therapists, cooks, drivers and eight sport psychologists. There is a physical therapist whose only job was to practise cupping – the healing technique that left circular marks on Mr. Phelps – for the swim team.

The U.S. Olympic team's sheer dominance allowed it to take over facilities at Rio's Navy School for the duration of the Games and renovate the track to match the colour and surface of the Olympic Stadium.

Mr. Uera's support staff consists of his coach, Sled Dowabobo, a judoka who competed at the London 2012 Olympics. He is Mr. Uera's physiotherapist, morale booster and all-around helper. His approach toward injuries is pragmatic. "We try to be careful and fix things on our own," Mr. Dowabobo said.

To raise funds for his training, Mr. Uera holds money-raising barbecues and goes door knocking around the island. He knows everyone. They know him. It takes only 20 minutes to drive around the entire country on its only road.

A married father of one who works for Nauru Airlines, Mr. Uera also dipped into his own savings. It takes cash to participate in competitions if you live in Nauru. You can't get anywhere without a plane ticket and hours of time in the air. Australia is a five-hour flight. Nauru is near nothing except water.

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There is almost no one to train with in Nauru in judo. His only real challengers are his coach and another Nauruan, who is a wrestler. To prepare for the Olympics in his 90-kilogram division, Mr. Uera studied YouTube videos of Varlam Liparteliani, a fearsome judoka from Georgia. Mr. Liparteliani is Europe's judo champion. "He's one of my idols," Mr. Uera said.

On Aug. 10, Mr. Uera stepped into the judo competition space at Carioca Arena. He defeated his opponent, Renick James of Belize. It was Nauru's first-ever Olympic win in judo.

Then Mr. Uera faced his next opponent. It was Mr. Liparteliani. It is safe to say that Mr. Uera swallowed hard. But Mr. Uera is an Olympian. He tried as hard as he could.

"I never actually thought I would go up against him," he said. "When I stepped onto the mat I tried just concentrate on the fighting and do my best." He heard people in the crowd cheering for him. "I didn't expect others to support me. But we are the underdog. Nobody knows about Nauru," Mr. Uera says. "The first question people always ask me is, 'Where's Nauru?'"

Mr. Liparteliani won the contest against Mr. Uera and went on to to secure the silver medal. Mr. Uera left the stage with his head high. "I went out there and gave it my all. I had no regrets."

Mr. Uera's presence at the Olympics was a bright spot for Nauru, where the news has been bleak for many years. The island was annexed by Germany in 1888 and colonized by five different powers in quick succession. European diseases devastated its indigenous people, and massacres and other Second World War atrocities brought the island to a few hundred people.

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Strip mining of phosphate deposits have left much of the island a wasteland and, like other Pacific countries, Nauru is threatened by climate change. And now, the island is at the heart of the controversy over abuses of asylum seekers at its detention centre, which was set up by Australia.

On Aug. 10, some hope from Rio washed up onshore. The whole island stayed up until 3 a.m. to watch their hero compete.

"I feel very proud," Mr. Uera said. "Just being at the Olympics is a really big achievement. Being around all the champions of the world is a bonus."

At Rio's closing ceremony, it will be Mr. Uera's turn to carry his country's flag. Teammate Mr. Brechtefeld finished toward the bottom of his 56 kg class in weightlifting and is flying home this week, reducing the Nauru Olympic team by 50 per cent. Mr. Uera will return to Nauru as well, to its rundown gym with cement floors and mats pounded thin as if it were scaloppini from more than 20 years of use, and start to train so he can return to the Olympics again.

"Getting here has come down to a lot of hard work, dedication and commitment," he said. "I've learned you have to be fearless and aim to break your limits. Nothing is impossible."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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