Ugandan weightlifter who went missing in Japan returns home

Ugandan athletes leave for Tokyo from Izumisano City, Osaka Prefecture on July 20, 2021. A weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko, who escaped from the hotel on July 16th and is missing, remains unknown. The Yomiuri Shimbun/REUTERS/FILE
A weightlifter who went missing in Japan this month as he sought to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics has returned to Uganda and will be interrogated by police, authorities said Friday — a week after his disappearance prompted international news headlines and drew mixed reactions from around the country.

Julius Ssekitoleko, 20, arrived at Entebbe International Airport just after 8 a.m. local time Friday aboard a Qatar Airways flight. Photos and videos published by Ugandan media on social media showed him holding his documents at the arrivals terminal.

After clearing immigration, Ssekitoleko remained at the airport for more than two hours. He was then taken to the headquarters of the Criminal Investigations Directorate in the capital Kampala, according to his mother, Juliet Nalwadda.

Charles Twiine, a spokesman with the CID, later told The New York Times that Ssekitoleko was “resting” at their offices after which he will be interrogated by detectives to “establish whether there was any crime committed.”

Fred Enanga, the Uganda Police Force spokesman, said in a text message that authorities wanted “to establish circumstances under which he disappeared from the Olympic Village camp while representing the country,” adding, “We shall then decide on how best to handle his matter going forward.”

Ssekitoleko was first reported missing last Friday after he failed to turn up for a coronavirus test while staying in a training camp in Izumisano, a city in Osaka prefecture in western Japan. Ssekitoleko, who did not qualify for the Games and was set to fly home to Uganda on Tuesday, left behind a note in which he said he didn’t want to return and hoped to find work in Japan. Five days later, police found him in the city of Yokkaichi in Mie prefecture.

Ssekitoleko has for years been interested in rugby and weightlifting and had won many local competitions, Nalwadda, his mother, said. In 2018, he represented Uganda at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in Australia and finished 10th in the men’s 56 kilos weightlifting competition.

But his dedication to the sport didn’t boost his income, she said. When he left for Japan, he hoped he would not only qualify but also win a medal and earn some money, she said.

“I think telling him that he had not qualified and would return home, without providing him with counselling, is what caused him to run away from the camp,” she said.

Desire Nampeewo, Ssekitoleko’s wife, who is pregnant with their first child, said they were in dire straits and would at times not have enough to eat. After news of his disappearance broke, she was evicted from the house they were renting because they hadn’t paid four months of rent that totalled about $170.

Ssekitoleko was hoping to become one of 25 athletes — including runners, boxers and a swimmer — who are currently representing Uganda at the Tokyo Games. After arriving in Japan in June, a coach and an athlete with the team tested positive for the coronavirus.

The weightlifter is not the first African athlete to go missing while travelling for a sports competition. In 2018, six Ugandan athletes vanished during the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games along with others from Rwanda and Kenya. Seven Olympic athletes from Cameroon went missing during the London 2012 Olympic Games. Eritrean soccer players have repeatedly disappeared or refused to return home while playing abroad.

Ssekitoleko’s disappearance drew ire from some government officials who called him a “traitor” and his conduct “unacceptable.”

Okello Oryem, a junior minister in Uganda’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, said authorities should investigate why the weightlifter did what he did. “He is a young man who could have been misled by individuals,” he said.

Maurice Kirya, a Ugandan singer and actor, said that Ssekitoleko’s actions only speak to the desperation facing Ugandan athletes. “We should not treat Julius Ssekitoleko like a criminal, he is not,” Kirya tweeted.

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