When Olympic Athletes Defect

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With the Olympics ending today, the games’ closing ceremony marks the end of the historic event that saw Olympic champions triumph, crowned new legends and left behind a mystery still waiting to be solved: What happened to the seven Cameroonian athletes who deserted the Olympics?

The athletes — five male boxers, a female soccer player and a male swimmer — likely used the Olympics as their chance to seek better economic opportunity in Europe. As Discovery News’ Amanda Onion explained, Cameroon is one of the world’s poorest nations with a population of 20 million.

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As shocking as it might be for athletes to manage to slip away when all eyes are on what might be the most watched sporting event in the world, this isn’t the first time that athletes have used the cover of the games to escape their home countries to seek a better life. In fact, as Olympic historian David Wallechinsky told National Public Radio, one of the missing athletes, Thomas Essomba, even tried to defect four years ago at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Although many of these kinds of defections took place during the Cold War, they’re still common today. In fact, at this year’s games, before the Cameroonian athletes made their escape, three Sudanese Olympians walked into police station in London before the opening ceremony even started and asked for political asylum, according to ESPN. Two Somali athletes reportedly also sought to remain in the United Kingdom, as reported by the BBC News, but one later denied the attempt because of threats she had received.

According to the New York Times, the earliest known asylum request in the history of the modern Olympic games took place at the 1948 Olympics, also in London. Marie Provaznikova, head of the Czechoslovakian women’s gymnastics team, sought to defect to the United States. At the time, Czechoslovakia had only started to come under Soviet influence, and Provaznikova could see change on the horizon. The United States granted her request, and Provaznikova spent the rest of her life on U.S. soil, teaching gymnastics.

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One of the largest defections in history took place just eight years later at the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia. As the Hungarian national team was competing at the Olympics, Hungary was in the midst of an uprising against the Soviet Union. Tension between the two seemed apparent at the games during a violent water polo match in which a Hungarian athlete left the pool with blood streaming down his face. When the games ended, the 83-member Hungarian team had a choice: go home or start a new life. More than half of the athletes ended up defecting, seeking asylum in the United States.

At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, 117 athletes defected, according to news reports, the most of any Olympics in history although scant details are available about who escaped. The 1976 Games in Montreal saw fewer defections, but the Olympics did see the Soviets accusing the Canadians of kidnapping and brainwashing, as reported by UPI.

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Games hosted in Western nations are much more likely to see defections, given their more liberal policies on political asylum-seekers. The last time the United States hosted the Summer Olympic Games in 1996 saw a number of cases of athletes fleeing their home countries. Two baseball players, a boxing coach and a boxer all defected from Cuba to the United States. Raed Ahmed, an Iraqi weightlifter and the flag-bearer at the opening ceremony, also fled the Olympic Village for asylum in the United States, according to the New York Times, in an effort to flee the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Photo: Cameroonian boxer Serge Ambomo fights at the 2012 Olympics in London. Ambomo is one of the athletes to go missing. Credit: Getty Images