The London defect
“Do you fear harm or mistreatment if you return to your home country? If “Yes,” explain in detail.”
—U.S. Application for political asylum
“Most of the time, they don’t come back.”
—Emmanuel Tataw, Cameroon press attaché
Athletes train their whole lives to try to make it to the Olympics for the chance at earning gold. They give up many of the other activities that young men and women consider to be a normal part of growing up and they devote countless hours to their craft and hope for an opportunity to bring a medal home. Yet, for some who come to the Olympics from countries torn by war, beset by poverty or ruled by oppressive regimes, the Olympics present an opportunity that has nothing to do with athletic achievement.
Defection, and the seeking of asylum in another country, is nothing new or particularly unique. From Benedict Arnold’s defection to the British during the Revolutionary War to Lee Harvey Oswald’s 1959 request for asylum in the U.S.S.R. (he returned to the U.S. in 1962) to the hundreds or perhaps thousands of citizens who fled East Germany for freedom in the West, the process is a familiar one.
In the United States, requests for asylum are handled by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, now a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Requests for asylum are governed by form I-589 and, for persons residing in Ohio, are to be filed with the immigration service center in Nebraska.
Asylum can be requested based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, membership in a particular social group or to avoid torture. Specific details about torture, mistreatment and false imprisonment are requested on the U.S. asylum application. The criminal record of the applicant, their prior participation in any questionable groups or organizations and any unexplained delay in the filing of their application for asylum are all factors that may result in their application being denied.
The defection of athletes during overseas trips or competitions is certainly not unusual. Several of the Cuban baseball players now competing in Major League Baseball in the United States defected from their homeland during a competitive trip overseas. The Olympic games are, of course, the most visible of international competitions and are conducted under incredibly tight security. Still, there is a long history of athletes defecting during the Olympics.
In 1956, shortly after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian revolution, nearly half of the Hungarian team’s one hundred member delegation to the games in Melbourne defected. Several members of the Afghanistan delegation defected during the 1980 Moscow games and four Romanians failed to return home from Canada after the 1976 games in Montreal.
Not all of the defections take place at the games themselves. During the qualifying tournament for the 2008 games, nearly one third of the Cuban soccer team defected and during qualifying play for this year’s games one of Cuba’s male soccer player sought asylum in the U.S. and two female players did the same in Canada.
Prior to the start of this year’s Olympics, three athletes from Sudan filed applications seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. They did not compete in the Olympic Games. Following the completion of their events seven athletes from Cameroon went missing earlier this week from the athlete’s village. While there was no official confirmation from the IOC or the British government about a mass defection, the head of Cameroon’s Olympic delegation confirmed that the athletes likely defected and a spokesman for the country said that it was unlikely that the athletes would return home.
Although grants of asylum in the U.S. fell sharply immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they quickly rose again and averaged more than 50,000 per year from 2005 to 2008. The country hosting the Olympics must prepare athletic facilities and infrastructure, but it must also prepare for the defections of athletes who do not wish to return home to troubled nations.
David Hejmanowski is a magistrate and court administrator at the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former assistant prosecuting attorney.