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A Brief History of Olympic Defectors

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For some athletes, the Olympics aren’t just a competition: they’re a chance to escape oppression. Earlier this week, seven of Cameroon’s athletes disappeared from London’s Olympic Village. The week before, three runners from Sudan’s Olympic training squad filed for asylum in Britain. Here’s a look at some other Olympic defections.

1948 Summer Olympics: London

Marie Provaznikova, a Czech who was President of the International Gymnastics Federation, was the first person to defect from the Olympics. Czechoslovakia had recently become a satellite of the Soviet Union, and Provaznikova knew her country wouldn’t be the same. She darted to the United States, where she later taught gymnastics. Provaznikova lived in the U.S. until 1991, dying at age 101.

1956 Summer Olympics: Melbourne

In 1956, Hungary flew 83 athletes to Melbourne, Australia. While their plane took off, the streets of Budapest cracked with the sound of gunfire: Hungarians were revolting against Soviet rule. By the time the Games were over, the Soviets had crushed the opposition. When the team heard the news, only 38 athletes decided to ride the plane back home. Most of the other athletes defected to America and settled in California.

1964 Winter Olympics: Innsbruck, Austria

While her team wined and dined, Ute Gaehler, an alternate for East Germany’s toboggan team, ran for the border. One night, as her team was celebrating at a reception, Gaehler slipped out of her living quarters and fled for West Germany. She made it safely. The AP reports that 13 fans from “Eastern European Communist countries” also escaped.

1964 Summer Olympics: Tokyo

Two Hungarian athletes—a canoeist and a marksman—defected in 1964 and later found sanctuary in the United States. Both fled because Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, had been ousted from office. Khrushchev was one of the USSR’s least repressive rulers, and the Hungarians feared that life back home would change for the worse.

1968 Summer Olympics: Mexico City

1968 was the first time summer athletes had to take “sex verification tests.” The controversial tests stirred up some noise, helping Cuban tennis player Juan Campos quietly defect to Mexico amid the ruckus.

1972 Summer Olympics: Munich

According to the Associated Press, 117 people defected at the Munich games. However, there is little information on who they were, where they were from, and where they went.

1976 Summer Olympics: Montreal

In 1976, four Romanians and one Russian sought refuge in Canada. One of the defectors was Sergei Nemtsanov, a 17-year-old Russian diver. The head of the Soviet Olympic squad claimed that “unidentified terrorists” had kidnapped Nemtsanov and brainwashed him to “embrace freedom.” In reality, Nemtsanov had fallen in love with a female diver from Cincinnati and was hiding with a family in Ontario. He eventually had to revoke his defection, and he left brokenhearted.

1980 Summer Olympics: Moscow

The road to Moscow was paved with deserters, primarily because the USSR had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Many Afghani athletes feared going to Moscow and jumped ship to avoid it. A month before the games, seven members of the basketball team fled to Pakistan. A day before the Olympic flight, seven wrestlers also left for Pakistan. Five more players defected during the games, some fleeing to America, others to West Germany.

1984 Summer Olympics: Los Angeles

In 1984, a San Diego newspaper hired Romanian sportswriter Vladimir Moraru as a translator. When the games finished, Moraru decided that he liked the San Diego sun. The Romanian writer asked for, and received, political asylum.

1996 Summer Olympics: Atlanta

When Iraqi weightlifter Raid Ahmed went to Atlanta, he carried his country’s flag at the opening ceremony. A week later, he rejected that same flag and defected to the U.S. Ahmed vocally opposed Saddam Hussein’s regime, and he feared execution. Afghanistan’s flag bearer, boxer Jawid Aman Mukhamad, had the same problem: Afghan officials accused him of being a communist (Mukhamad had trained in Russia). Scared for his life, he acquired refugee status in Canada.

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Redesigned Adidas Sneakers Channel Beijing’s Olympic Stadium
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KXIV

Beijing National Stadium has stood empty since the 2008 Olympics, but that hasn’t stopped the building from becoming an architectural icon. Designer KXIV (Nathan Kiatkulpiboone) found inspiration in the tangled "Bird’s Nest" structure when re-imagining Adidas’s Ultraboost running shoe. As designboom reports, he used 3D-printing technology to achieve the lattice design.

KXIV comes from a background in architecture. When he isn’t dreaming up shopping centers or city towers, he’s applying the principles he uses as an architect to sneaker design. In 2014, he unveiled a pair of Nike Jordan X shoes that borrowed elements from Thailand’s White Temple and Black House. He's also created a line of dress shoes inspired by modern architecture for the footwear brand SewRaw.

His latest project evokes the Bird’s Nest woven exterior. The Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron designed the stadium for the 2008 Olympics, and today it’s remembered as one of the most distinctive structures ever built for the games.

To recreate the look on an Adidas sneaker, KXIV used polyurethane webbing fused to a lycra base. The upper layer of bands were 3D-printed in a way that holds the shoes together. The sneakers are just a prototype, so like the stadium they’re based on, the striking form will remain unused for the foreseeable future.

Shoes inspired by Beijing National Stadium.
KXIV
KXIV

Shoes inspired by Beijing National Stadium.
KXIV

[h/t designboom]

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5 Fast Facts About Nancy Kerrigan
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Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images for The Buoniconti Fund

Google Nancy Kerrigan’s name and the first batch of results will mainly be articles about the brutal knee injury she sustained, courtesy of an assailant hired by fellow skater Tonya Harding’s ex-husband, right before the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Yet Kerrigan is much more than a victim of that attack, even though Hollywood keeps making documentaries and feature films about the incident. Despite the injury, Kerrigan won a silver medal at Lillehammer (after previously winning a bronze at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France).

Currently, Kerrigan and dance partner Artem Chigvintsev are competing on the new season of Dancing with the Stars; as of this writing, the couple is still in it. Here are five things to know about the wannabe Mirror Ball trophy winner.

1. HER MOTHER IS LEGALLY BLIND.

In 1972, Nancy’s mom, Brenda, lost complete sight in her left eye—and most of the sight in her right eye—and became legally blind because of a rare virus. When Nancy’s parents attended the Albertville Olympics, they had to sit underneath the stands and watch the performance on a TV. “It’s made it possible for me to see 100 percent more than I would in the stands, but not the way you do,” Brenda told The New York Times in 1992. “I never can see her face.” Kerrigan set up a charity, The Nancy Kerrigan Foundation, to raise money for the vision impaired.

2. SHE MADE HISTORY AT THE 1991 WORLD FIGURE SKATING CHAMPIONSHIPS.

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During the 1991 World Figure Skating Championships held in Munich 10 months before the 1992 Olympic Games, Kristi Yamaguchi, Harding, and Kerrigan all won medals; it was the first time the same country had swept the women’s medal stand. (American men did this in 1956.) Yamaguchi won gold at Albertville, Kerrigan won bronze, and Harding finished fourth.

Like Kerrigan, Yamaguchi also competed on DWTS; she danced with Mark Ballas during season six—and won. Wishing her former competitor Kerrigan luck, Yamaguchi tweeted “break a leg” to Kerrigan (which, in hindsight, might not have been the best way of rooting Kerrigan on).

3. SHE WROTE A BOOK ON FIGURE SKATING.

In 2002, Kerrigan published a book on how to figure skate. In Artistry on Ice: Figure Skating Skills & Style, she writes about advanced techniques, competition, choreography, and costumes (she competed in designer costumes created by Vera Wang).

4. SHE’S CURRENTLY PRODUCING A DOCUMENTARY.

Kerrigan recently told People about how she developed an eating disorder after the traumatic events at the 1994 Olympics. All the media scrutiny caused her to feel like “everything else was really out of control at the time,” she said. “I would avoid food because it was something I could do. I felt like I could control that and nothing else.” She wasn’t anorexic, but she did stop eating for a period.

With encouragement from her manager and family, she slowly started eating more. Kerrigan is producing a documentary on eating disorders called Why Don’t You Lose 5 More Pounds, due out next year. The doc will feature interviews with other women who have suffered through extreme eating issues.

5. A BIG-SCREEN VERSION OF THE TONYA HARDING INCIDENT IS COMING TO A THEATER NEAR YOU.

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I, Tonya, a big-screen recounting of Harding’s rise to fame (and fall from grace) is currently in production. Directed by Craig Gillespie, the film will focus mainly on Harding, who will be played by Margot Robbie. Caitlin Carver, who appeared in the film adaptation of John Green’s Paper Towns, will play Kerrigan.

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