A Brief History of Olympic Defectors
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.