Hungarian Is Ghana's Unlikely Olympian

Ghana will see its first ever female judo athlete compete at an Olympic Games on Tuesday. Yet more remarkable is that Szandra Szogedi is in fact a former gymnastics champion from Hungary, writes Chris Matthews.

The 27-year-old, who first competed for the West African nation only five years ago, will take to the judo mat in the 63kg category in Brazil.

She hopes her qualification can help grow the popularity of the sport in a country where football and boxing dominate and funding remains scarce.

Szogedi's qualification was confirmed at an event in Kazakhstan in May and her impending appearance in Rio is a long way from her childhood in Hungary's capital, Budapest, aspiring to be an international gymnast.

"From a very young age in kindergarten I was doing gymnastics," she says.

"From the age of 10 I was already training eight times a week.

"I have always been in and around sport. I have never known anything different."

She and her older sister competed in national championships and were heading towards a possible career in gymnastics.

But their aspirations were halted after there were allegations of physical abuse in their training programme and they quit the sport.

From gymnast to judoka
Szogedi says that the switch to judo all started when her father had a conversation with a friend who is a Hungarian judo Olympic silver medallist.

"My father spoke to him and was like, 'I don't know what to do with the girls now, they have to do something'.

"So the friend invited my dad to take us to judo."

After two weeks, her coach entered her for some local tournaments "and then I got serious", she says.

By the age of 12, she had made the Hungarian team and within a year she came second at the national championships.

By 2005 she had won 12 junior national titles for the country.

Yet later that year a family breakdown put the brakes on her judo career and she stopped in order to support her mother.

After moving to the UK in 2007 to work as a waitress it seemed her sporting ambitions were over.

But that all changed when she spotted her friend in the Hungary team at the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games.

"I just thought this is maybe not meant to be for me but after I saw that I said to my mum, 'You need to send my judo gear - I'm on it.'"

Ghana calling
By then she had not practised any judo for three years.

While working at a London hotel, Szogedi started to ramp up her training at a local judo centre.

It was there that she met her future husband, Alex Amoako, himself a former national judoka for Ghana.

The couple married shortly afterwards in the Ghanaian city of Kumasi.

On that trip, Szogedi decided to change the country she represented in judo from Hungary to Ghana.

The added benefit for her was that, unlike Hungary, the Ghana Judo Federation did not insist that she train in the country.

She first competed at the 2011 African Championships and, although she missed out on London 2012, has since gone on to claim eight international medals, including gold at the African Open in 2014 and bronze medals at the last three African Championships.

The All Africa Games last year gave her a taste of what is to come in Rio competing for Ghana.

"The atmosphere in the community is great," she says.

"I'll never forget coming back from the park with my bronze medal.

"There were guys with Ghana tracksuits and we had never seen each other before and they asked 'Did you win something?'

"They started to dance and sing being happy that someone from Ghana won a medal.

"We are going to be the loudest, happiest team in Rio."

Funding difficulties
There are hopes that she will encourage more Ghanaian women to compete.

Promoting judo in a country where football, boxing and athletics remain the most popular sports is difficult.

No-one had ever represented Ghana in judo at the Olympics until 2012 when Emmanuel Nartey was knocked out in the second round.

Szogedi is the first female judo athlete to represent the country.

She won a scholarship from the International Olympics Committee to help fund her qualification. But funding is rare.

"It is very difficult for the Ghana sports authority and government to put in funds for the development of sports like judo," says Emmanuel Tetteh, president of the Ghana Judo Federation (GJF) in the capital, Accra.

This makes it is very difficult for local athletes to travel and attend competitions, he explains.

He himself works full time as a customs officer.

"If there had been support from government we would have qualified more players," he says.