Kinaua Biribo is unlikely to win an Olympic medal. When the elimination rounds of her judo category begin later this month, the 27-year-old will be a firm underdog; she has been knocked out in the first round of both of her international competition appearances to date.

inaua Biribo is unlikely to win an Olympic medal. When the elimination rounds of her judo category begin later this month, the 27-year-old will be a firm underdog; she has been knocked out in the first round of both of her international competition appearances to date.

But Kinaua, whom the Guardian is referring to by her first name as is culturally appropriate, has ambitions far grander than any Olympic medal. She wants to inspire the women of her Pacific homeland and combat the scourge of domestic violence.

In Tokyo, Kinaua will become Kiribati’s first-ever Olympic judoka. Her country – a collection of atolls spread across 3.5 million square kilometres of Pacific Ocean – only made its Olympic debut in 2004.

As just the fourth female I-Kiribati Olympian in history, Kinaua is acutely aware of her role model status back home. Speaking from Budapest, where she has been since the World Judo Championships in June, Kinaua says that she relishes the position.

“I’m living the dream,” she says. “Representing Kiribati in the Olympics is a great step for me. Women are going to look up to me – ‘she did it, if she can do it, we can.’ That’s the main motivation for me.”

The past 17 months have not been easy for Kinaua. The judoka left Kiribati early last year; she was supposed to be away for just one month, on what was her first trip beyond the Pacific. A year and a half later, she has travelled to Japan, Russia and Hungary, but is yet to return home. “I really miss Kiribati,” she says. “For islanders, right, we never leave our country for this long.”

Kinaua went to Japan last February for a training camp, before she was due to make her competitive debut in Mongolia. Then the pandemic happened. Kiribati – which is barely accessible in ordinary times, with just two flights a week from Fiji – closed its border (it has not recorded a single case of community transmission). Kinaua has been stuck in Japan, based at a university outside Tokyo.

But spurred on by her higher mission, Kinaua insists she has no complaints. “Every time I don’t want to do training, if I’m feeling slack, I think about the women back home,” she says.

Kiribati, with a population of about 120,000, has a domestic violence problem. A recent study by the Equality Institute, commissioned by UN Women, found that almost 60% of men had perpetrated intimate partner violence in the past year. It is a challenge across the region: the study’s authors noted that “the Pacific region has some of the highest rates of violence against women and girls in the world.”

For Kinaua, the impact of domestic violence is deeply personal.

“There are a lot of cases [of domestic violence] back in Kiribati,” she says. “Most of the men beat their wives. And there is no one to stop them. We think it’s a couple’s fight, so we have to mind our business. I don’t agree with that.”

Kinaua hopes that her Olympic appearance in judo, a Japanese martial art, will empower I-Kiribati women. “It is my dream to break this vicious cycle of brutal force against women and bring forth a spotlight on domestic violence while proving to men that women are also strong and not just helpless victims,” she said in a recent Facebook post.

“I see this opportunity as a chance to give hope and strength to my sisters struggling back home. This is my chance to remind them that being a woman is a blessing and not a curse.”

When Kinaua was six, she was abducted and sexually assaulted. She thought that she was going to die – until her grandfather realised that she was missing, and intervened. The incident traumatised Kinaua. “I became fearful of people,” she said in a Facebook post in 2018. “I could not trust those outside of my own family. I could not face strangers.”

But then, Kinaua found sport. “That’s where it all started,” she says. “I wanted to do self-defence, because of that day when I was abused. From that day, because of that anger in me, I wanted to take revenge.” Kinaua took up traditional Kiribati wrestling, and has been competing for the past decade. But in wrestling, Kinaua found that her desire for “vengeance” dissipated. “I learned to forgive, and forgiveness has freed me from the hurt, the anger and hatred for what had been done to me,” she said in the post.

Very few women wrestle in Kiribati, so Kinaua trained with male counterparts. “There were only three of us [women] doing wrestling,” she recalls. “So I started wrestling with the men. I’m single, but the other women were married so they couldn’t wrestle with men.”

Then, in 2019, Kinaua was told about an opportunity to try judo ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. “At first I didn’t really want to [switch from wrestling],” she says. “But when they told me [the program] was specifically for women, [I thought] maybe if the women in Kiribati see that, it will be good for them.” In May, Kinaua made her competitive debut at the Kazan Grand Slam in Russia, losing to South Korea’s Kim Seong-yeon in the 70-kilogram weight class. Kinaua heads to Tokyo ranked 177th in the world.

One of just three I-Kiribati competing at this Olympics, Kinaua is following in the footsteps of the Pacific nation’s favourite son – weightlifter David Katoatau, who won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Katoatau rose to global prominence by using his sporting platform to raise awareness about climate change. Before leaving Kiribati, Kinaua was also a volunteer with the Kiribati Climate Action Network (Kiri-CAN).

“The sea level is rising,” she says. With most of Kiribati barely a metre above sea level, the climate crisis poses an existential threat. “I really want to show to the whole world about Kiribati and how we are affected by climate change,” Kinaua adds.

“It’s funny – when I first went for competition – I told them I was from Kiribati,” Kinaua says. “People were like – ‘where is that?’ A lot of people don’t know where we are and what we are facing right now. I want to change that.”

After the Olympics, Kinaua will be in limbo; it remains unclear when Kiribati’s borders will reopen. “I don’t know when I can go home,” she says. But when this judoka finally makes it back to her Pacific homeland, she will have an incredible story to tell. A short trip transformed into an international odyssey, fuelled by a passion for gender equality, culminating in an Olympic debut.

“When I go back, I’m going to do school visits and tell this story – to inspire I-Kiribati kids, especially the girls,” says Kinaua. “Sport is not only sport – it can take you anywhere.”

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