'My mind wasn't working': The desperation that drove Julius Ssekitoleko to go MIA at the Olympics

Caeleb Dressel gives insight into the anxiety Olympic athletes face (1:59)

Caeleb Dressel speaks to Stephen A. Smith about the intense anxiety he faced while at the Olympics. (1:59)

Content warning: The following story contains descriptions of suicidal ideation.

On July 17, six days before the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Tokyo, reports emerged that Uganda weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko had gone missing from the team hotel, despite the coronavirus quarantine measures in place.

The East African athlete, according to reports, had left the team hotel in order to seek a new life, leaving behind his luggage and a note explaining his intention to find work, and vanished into the night.

He was found, four days later, in Yokkaichi, 105 miles from his hotel in Izumisano, and was promptly returned to the Uganda camp and flown back to his homeland.

On July 23, one month and five days after arriving in Japan, he landed back at Entebbe airport in handcuffs, with authorities taking a dim view of his attempt to abscond while on international duty.

For the next five days, while the likes of Sunisa Lee, Sifan Hassan and Tatjana Schoenmaker wrote their Olympic legacies, Ssekitoleko languished in a Ugandan prison, facing charges of attempting to defraud the government.

For some observers, Ssekitoleko was dismissed as just another athlete from Uganda who had taken the opportunity to go MIA when a brighter future presented itself overseas.

The weightlifter's motivations and pressures, unknown to the public at the time, highlight another side to the Olympic Games, demonstrating the critical need for greater mental health support for athletes who may not have resources of their own.

Ssekitoleko detailed, for the first time, to ESPN the events that led up to his disappearance, and the pressures that evoked his thoughts of self-harm, and eventual flight from the hotel.

The gamble that didn't pay off

Ssekitoleko says he headed to Japan on June 19 with a mountain of debt, having sold his motorbike -- losing the income from working as a delivery driver -- in order to buy weightlifting equipment.

The 21-year-old took a gamble and promised the owner of the property in which he lived and trained that he would return from the Games with the required funds to pay back the rent he owed.

He was fueled by the unrealistic, as it turned out, dream of future riches contingent on medal success at the Games.

"In Uganda, people are struggling, as was I," he told ESPN. "In Kampala, if you don't have land or a house, you have to pay to rent, pay to train, so I used to do that.

"[However] I wasn't paying, and I told the guy, 'I will pay you.' I knew I was going to the Games, I knew I could do it, would come back, and it'd be OK, my life would have changed.

"I would have won there, and they would [have given me] some money. You see the guys who win the gold, silver, bronze medals, they got a lot of things; they got cars, they are going to build good houses for them."

Disaster struck for Ssekitoleko after he'd already arrived in Japan, however. He says he was shocked to learn that he had been cut from the Olympic team and would not be competing after all.

Ssekitoleko, who had been a travelling reserve, seemed to be unaware that he had to wait for the final IWF rankings to be published before knowing his competition fate. He had not met the Olympic qualifying criteria.

"We reached there, and they told me at the last minute -- three days before we were due to go to the Olympic Village -- that I wasn't going to compete and that I hadn't qualified," he said. "I didn't know they could do this; that they could tell me I hadn't qualified and couldn't compete.

"I felt so bad, I had so much stress, because I had given myself so much time to prepare for these Games."

The Ugandan weightlifting authorities said in a statement that Ssekitoleko had indeed been informed, before leaving Uganda, that he was not guaranteed a place and would need to wait for the final rankings.

The UWF statement read: "His qualification was pending announcement by the International Weight-lifting Federation (IWF) of its final qualified weightlifters to participate at the Tokyo Olympic Games. He had been duly informed and was aware of this position from the time he was set to leave Uganda for Izumisano, Japan."

Compounding Ssekitoleko's sense of desperation, he heard stories from people back home that his pregnant wife was being threatened with eviction due to the unpaid rent.

He added: "People were talking and saying that they'd thrown my wife out of the house. I was stressed when they told me about that.

"She's pregnant and will soon give birth, and I was thinking that when I go back to Uganda, I would have nothing, nowhere to start. ... It was a very big problem for me."

Standing on a rooftop

With his misguided plan to pay back the accrued debt shattered by the news that he would not be competing at the Games, Ssekitoleko said that went up to the roof of the team's hotel, where he considered taking his own life.

"On that day, a guy gave me a ticket and said, 'You're going back to Uganda,'" the young weightlifter recalled.

"My mind was not even working at that time. When he finished telling me and gave me my ticket, I just went straight to my room, sat down and started praying to God.

"I was thinking a lot of things: to kill myself, to disappear, or maybe I could get help from people. I left my room, I got outside -- where we were staying was a very tall building -- and I wanted to throw myself down, because of this pressure.

"I had nowhere. ... If I came back to Uganda, where could I start? I wanted to kill myself.

"[Then] at the moment I was thinking of throwing myself down, I looked forward and I saw a train that was moving, and I thought, 'Maybe instead of killing myself, I can get help for myself from people.'"

Last gasp bid for a new life

Ssekitoleko says he then went back to his room to pack some belongings, fled the team hotel, and boarded a train to Nagoya, approximately 215 miles southwest of Tokyo.

"I went down, very early in the morning, at 4 a.m., carried my bag, and went to the train station," he said. "I thought I would go to Nagoya, I knew this name from Toyota cars, and I thought there would be a lot of people there, I can get help from there.

"I had $100 I came with from Uganda, and went to the train station. I went to the [ATM] machine, they gave me balance for 2000 Yen and some coins and they gave me a ticket, and I sat in the train to Nagoya station."

He concedes that he didn't have a clear idea of how he would construct a new life for himself or raise funds, but he remained optimistic that through a combination of local generosity and/or work opportunities, finances would come.

He had weighed up going home to his pregnant wife, with no money, versus being away and earning money, and says he had opted for the latter: "I wasn't worried [about not going back home] because I knew that if I got work, I could send them money and that their life and situation would get better."

Living on the streets for the next few days after getting off the train in the city of Yokkaichi, and surviving off the bananas and donuts he'd taken from the hotel, Ssekitoleko began to take stock of his situation.

"In those countries, they don't have animals who can bite you or affect you, so I just laid down in some clothes of mine, and slept," he said. "I started to relax, because I saw other people and knew that I could get help from them, maybe I could meet people who knew English."

On his final evening in Yokkaichi, he found an unlocked car and slept the night, before eventually being recognised by the owner of the car and accepting an offer of refreshment.

"I asked if he could help me, and if he had anything I could eat, or a bathroom," Ssekitoleko said, still unaware that he was making headlines worldwide for his disappearance.

"He was from Pakistan, he knew English very well, and he told me, 'People have shown me your photograph, they are looking for you.'

"I had my phone, but you know, if you don't have signal, or Wi-Fi, or data ... so I wasn't connecting or communicating. This guy gave me food, tea, he showed me his bathroom, and I bathed. I told him I didn't know where I was, so I asked him to take me to the police."

Exhausted, and encouraged even by the prospect of a good night's sleep and a warm meal in Japanese custody, Ssekitoleko says he willfully handed himself over to the authorities, and was soon reunited with the Ugandan delegation.

Returning home in handcuffs

Despite the weightlifter expressing his futile desire not to return to Uganda, he ultimately boarded a flight home on July 23. He was arrested upon landing and taken to the headquarters of the Ugandan Criminal Investigations Directorate for questioning.

After five days in custody, accusations that Ssekitoleko had misled the Ugandan authorities about his qualification -- and therefore had fraudulently been selected for the Games -- were dropped.

Some members of the Ugandan government have since criticised the handling of the Ssekitoleko affair, suggesting that he should have been treated with compassion and care, instead of being considered a criminal.

"It's clear that Ssekitoleko was distraught after not qualifying for the competitions thus choosing to leave the camp," said MP Martin Ojara Mapenduzi at a parliamentary hearing on Aug. 18.

"There's [a] need to come up with a system to help support our sports representatives in all aspects of their lives and create a fund for them so that they do not engage in desperate actions."

The athlete garnered support online too, with a social media hashtag #StandWithSsekitoleko doing the rounds, and presidential candidate Henry Tumukunde tweeting: "How many people can stand up & say they've been good enough to represent the country at a major sports event? Talent needs guidance & the right environment to be fully realised. This young man, Julius Ssekitoleko, needs a second chance. #StandWithSsekitoleko"

Ssekitoleko, who represented Uganda at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, remains disappointed that both his Olympic ambitions and his attempt to forge a new life for himself in Japan were in vain.

He says that he is determined that one day he will access the riches that are on offer to elite athletes: "You go to the Olympics, you win a medal, you come back to Uganda and they give you your money.

"I'm not going to stop this sport. I'm going to compete, I'm going to do my best, and I'll prepare to go to the Olympics in 2024."