August 29, 2012
Along with the London Olympics this year came news of athletes who defected or disappeared, some before they had a chance to compete. At last count, the number exceeded 20. This is, of course, no surprise and has been part and parcel of the Olympic Games for decades.
This year, 15 African athletes and coaches defected, with Cameroon leading the way. There were no defections from North Korea, however, which was surprising to some. But Olympic Historian David Wallechinsky told NPR’s Melissa Block recently that some communist countries employ “minders” to accompany each athlete everywhere they go. They are never allowed to be alone, for fear of defection.
Yet athletes weren’t the only ones to disappear at the London games. A Congolese coach and a technical athletic director also failed to return to their home countries after the games ended earlier this month. (Ethiopia deserves honorable mention since young Nathaniel Yemane, a 15-year-old torch bearer, disappeared for a short time but was later found safe in Nottingham. Apparently, Nathaniel had gotten lost.)
Seventy years ago, Olympic defections were linked to Cold War politics (A Czech gymnastics coach was the first to defect in 1948.) Since the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, however, most defections have been economically motivated.
The benefits of defection from a third world country while in an international capital are not difficult to comprehend. The job market in the European Union may be bleak; however, it’s much brighter than in Cameroon where half the population falls below the poverty line. And many from home countries are willing and able to provide shelter and assistance, eager to help their fellow country men and women. According to the UN, an estimated 441,300 asylum applications were registered in 2011, which is 20% more than in 2010.
Meanwhile, back in Cameroon, a number of young people say they support these young athletes in their decision, stating they would do the same.
The act of defection – and of people living abroad, even – raises multiple questions. For starters, there’s the definition of citizenship. Then there are the rights of sovereign states. And, last but not least, there’s the question of a protection of basic human rights.
Tell me, how do you feel about Olympians defecting for political and/or economic reasons? And, is there a difference? Do you wish these athletes well in their quest for a better life or would you rather they return home?