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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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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Curling: A Beginner's Guide to Where and How to Learn to Curl
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Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

To the casual spectator, curling raises several questions. What are the players yelling about, for instance, and is all the sweeping really that important? The viewers who are only aware of the sport for two weeks every four years may also wonder if curling is still a thing when the winter Olympics are no longer in session. The answer, of course, is yes, and you don't need to be training for the big event to learn the game.

Curling may not have the mainstream appeal of other winter sports like skiing or ice-skating, but it's still accessible to amateurs if you know where to look. If you're a complete beginner, the best way to jump into the sport is to find your local curling club. Some clubs have spaces of their own dedicated to curling, while others are part of larger rinks that are also used for general ice skating. Team USA and the Shot Rock Curling Supplies company both offer interactive maps on their websites you can use to search curling clubs in your area.

Once you've found your club, the next step is learning the sport. Many curling clubs offer classes for beginners to develop the rudimentary skills required to deliver stones and sweep ice. Programs might consist of one session or a course spanning several weeks. Once you have a handle on the basics, you'll be prepared to get back on the ice and compete.

But unlike other sports, finding the right tools, people, and space necessary to actually play the sport isn't so easy. Fortunately, curling clubs also organize leagues for varying skill levels that provide all of that for you. To play you'll first have to pay a membership fee, but once you've signed up you'll be a part of a team that shares your commitment to the game.

This is the same way many Olympic athletes got involved in the sport, but it's a worthy hobby whether or not you aspire to go for the gold one day. The Oakville Curling Club in Ontario writes on their website: "It is a lifelong sport that can be learned at any age. Whether playing in a fun league or in a competitive ladder the emphasis is always on sportsmanship and fair play. Being a social sport by nature, it is not uncommon for teams to socialize off the ice where lasting friendships are often made."

Check out these cool facts about curling to learn the basics of how the game is played.

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