[SCMP Column] Sporting asylum

June 02, 2018

While most of the 4,400 athletes competing at the recent Gold Coast Commonwealth Games were competing for one of the 275 Gold medals up for grabs, a small number had a much more discrete agenda – defection.

At last count – two weeks after athletes’ visas expired – almost 30 had disappeared, many without even turning up to compete. Most were from Nigeria or Cameroon, though there were others from Rwanda, Uganda, Ghana and Sierra Leone.

It seems Australia is quite a magnet for such extra-curricular ambitions. In the Sydney Olympics in 2000 it was reported that dozens tried to remain in Australia, while at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, a total of 19 athletes sought asylum. One for the more famous was Omari Kimweri, a Tanzanian boxer who hid for nine months on a tobacco farm outside Melbourne before turning himself in for asylum. Ten years later, he won the World Boxing Council silver flyweight title – fighting as an Australian.

Clearly international competitive sport is seen by many athletes from the developing world as a fast track to asylum and a foreign passport – and also a potential passport to fortune. It can be Cuban football players defecting to the US (33 have defected since 1999), with a policy that allows them residency once they manage to set foot on US soil (the US issues special visas to “aliens of extraordinary ability”).
Or maybe Pakistani squash players following in the footsteps of legendary world champion Jahangir Khan. Or Samoan or Tongan rugby players playing for New Zealand, Australia, Japan – and even English Rugby League teams.
The stories are similar: successful athletes in developing countries the world over have found high sporting achievement to be as valuable a route to riches as any academic accomplishment.
Look at Kenya’s long distance runners, dozens of them from the Maasai tribal areas in the west, who even without an urge to emigrate have been able to parley their athletic prowess into substantial fortunes. In Eldoret in the Uasin Gishu highlands, marathon millionaires own more than a third of the area’s real estate. One among them, Wilson Kipsang, won the 2014 London Marathon, earning US$55,000 for winning, a further US$100,000 for a sub-2.05 hour time, and a final US$25,000 for setting a course record. His fellow female long distance runner Mary Keitany noted: “Athletics, like any other career, is to make a better future”.
While the Czech republic’s gymnast Marie Provazinkova was the first “modern” athletic asylum-seeker in 1948, the single most dramatic defection was again in Melbourne, at the 1956 Olympics. While the 83-strong Hungarian team were competing in the games, the Soviet army invaded and cracked down on the country’s leadership, creating turmoil among the Olympic competitors. A total of 43 Hungarian athletes refused to fly home, and most eventually won American citizenship.
With the Cold War still simmering, an East German tobogganist and 13 East European fans sought exile from the 1964 Innsbruck winter Olympics. In the 1972 Munich Olympics, a total of 117 defected.
By the time of the 2012 Olympics in London, asylum-seekers were no longer from Soviet bloc. Rather, they were Africans seeking a secure future away from deeply troubled and impoverished home countries. Seven of the 60-strong Cameroon squad disappeared, along with Ethiopia’s torchbearer and three athletes from Sudan.
There are certain common ingredients to athletic asylum-seeking: they tend to be from poor, troubled countries. But teams from truly draconian regimes – like the former Soviet Union, or 1960s China, or North Korea today – have tended not to escape because of a ferociously disciplined “minder” regime – often one minder for every single athlete.
They tend only to occur when sporting events are held in rich, asylum-friendly countries. Take Cameroon’s Thomas Essomba, who tried to defect at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. But when he “found that economic prospects were not too good, not to mention political prospects”, he gave himself up and returned home. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thomas is among the 30 athletes who have disappeared during the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. We have yet to see whether he finds Australia’s economic and political prospects more to his liking.
Defections tend not to occur during the Winter Olympics, not least because competitors have to be comparatively wealthy to compete at the highest levels, and so have limited incentives to defect. That is also probably why Hong Kong saw no defections while it was hosting the equestrian competitions in China’s 2008 Olympics.
They also tend not to occur during the football World Cups – perhaps in part because most of the top players, or those with high earning potential, are already being systematically headhunted by the world’s leading football clubs. Having said that, there seems to be heavy traffic during World Cup qualifying games, in particular in Africa. Eritrea in particular has built something of a reputation – with 6 players defecting to Angola in 2007, 12 to Kenya in 2009, 17 to Uganda in 2012, and 10 to Botswana in 2015. When you live in a deeply troubled country, even poor African neighbours can offer seductive opportunities.
Which brings us, of course, to Russia as host of the football World Cup starting in just over a week’s time. With 32 teams playing across 12 different venues across the country, there are in theory lots of opportunities to defect. But on balance, I sense the temptation to defect to Putin’s Russia is likely to be muted. Putin would no doubt regard it as a vote of the highest confidence in the Russian economy.
Much more interesting will be if the joint US-Canada-Mexico bid to host the 2026 World Cup proves successful. If between now and then Donald Trump does not wreak too much havoc, there might be a sudden surge of asylum-seeking. We will know within the week whether the US bid has been successful – or whether upstart Morocco has won the day. Asylum-seeking into Morocco might be more subdued – except of course for the plucky and persistent Eritreans.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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