The IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarship has given a young boxer the support he needs to train in hopes of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics – something that just months ago looked all but impossible.
Eldric Sella Rodríguez had dreamed of going to the Olympics since he was a kid.
At the age of 18, Eldric earned a place on Venezuela’s national team. He was part of the team for seven months, until he and the other newest members were let go because of a lack of resources.
As violence and poverty in his native country grew, the 24-year-old boxer had no choice but to leave – even though seeking safety would jeopardize his lifelong ambition of boxing for his country.
When he was invited to a boxing tournament in nearby Trinidad and Tobago in 2018, Eldric sought asylum in the Caribbean island-nation, leaving his friends, family and Olympic prospects behind.
“There was not a day when I didn’t think of going to the Olympics.”
He worked odd jobs to survive. But he continued to hone his boxing skills on the off chance he could find any way of qualifying for an Olympic team.
“There was not a day when I didn’t think of going to the Olympics…when I don’t think about boxing,” Eldric said. “When I was mixing concrete, I was thinking how that would help me in my boxing career. When I was cutting grass, I was thinking how that will help me in my boxing career. When I was painting a house, or whatever I was doing, I always had in my mind what I wanted to do.”
More than 5 million Venezuelans are currently living outside their country. An estimated 24,000 Venezuelan refugees and migrants are living in Trinidad and Tobago, many after having made the perilous sea voyage across the Columbus Channel, which separates the two nations.
Eldric got his start in boxing at age nine after a gym near his home in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, began offering free lessons to the neighbourhood kids. Four years later, in 2012, Eldric won his first National Championship, in the 15-16 age group.
“It’s the greatest feeling you ever could have because you’re number one,” he recalled. “Everything is on you. It feels great.”
That initial taste of victory stayed with him, helping fuel his Olympic dreams, even when they seemed impossible. But even in the darkest days, when Eldric was eking out a living working as a day labourer in Couva, a town on Trinidad’s western coast, he saw reasons for hope. First, there was his surprise win in a hastily organized match that the country’s National Boxing Association invited him to take part in.
“I wasn’t training. I was sick. And still, I won the fight,” he said. “So that win proved plenty to me.”
And then came something even more promising: Eldric was scrolling through Instagram when he spotted a post about the Refugee Olympic and Paralympic Teams. The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, marked the first time refugees from around the world competed in the Games on special teams.
There are currently more than 60 refugee athletes and Para athletes contending for a chance to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Games – which were postponed until this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is working closely with the International Olympic Committee and International Paralympic Committee to support those athletes, in part through the IOC Refugee Athlete Scholarships, which provide the would-be Olympians the financial support they need to train.
Eldric sent emails enquiring about the programme to just about everyone he could think of. His persistence paid off, and last December Eldric was awarded an IOC scholarship. Now, he is waiting to hear whether he will go to Tokyo as part of the Refugee Olympic team.
“I feel alive again.”
“When I got the approval to be in the programme, I felt I was back on my path,” said Eldric. “I feel alive again.”
Freed by the scholarship from the daily grind of day labour, Eldric devotes his time to intensive training, working out twice daily. While he misses the camaraderie and professionalism of Venezuela’s national boxing team, Eldric is turning to his family for support. His father, who arrived from Venezuela in 2019, is his coach, and his girlfriend, Luz, who joined him in Trinidad in 2018, acts as his manager and nutritionist.
“I have stuck to this my whole life. There will always be a way to make your dreams come true,” he says.