A Brief History of Olympic Defectors

Buda Mendes // Getty Images
Buda Mendes // Getty Images

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.

5 Fast Facts About Muhammad Ali

Kent Gavin/Getty Images
Kent Gavin/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali is one of the most important athletes and cultural figures in American history. Though he passed away in 2016, the heavyweight boxing champ was larger than life in and outside of the ring. The man who coined the phrase "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” won 37 knockout victories—and more about his inspiring life can be seen in the new documentary What’s My Name Muhammad Ali, premiering May 14 on HBO. Here are five more fast facts about Ali, a.k.a. The Greatest.

1. Cassius Clay was named for a white abolitionist.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. and named after his father, who had in turn been named for a white abolitionist. The original Cassius Clay was a wealthy 19th-century planter and politician who not only published an anti-slavery newspaper, but also emancipated every slave he inherited from his father. Cassius Clay also served as a minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln.

2. Muhammad Ali's draft evasion case went to the Supreme Court.

In the early 1960s, Clay converted to Islam, joined the Nation of Islam, and took the name Muhammad Ali. According to his religious beliefs, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam War when he was drafted in April 1967. He was arrested and stripped of his boxing license and heavyweight title. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and banned from fighting while he remained free on appeal. His case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971.

3. He received a replacement gold medal.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali won the gold medal for boxing in the light heavyweight division. But, as he wrote in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (edited by Toni Morrison!), he supposedly threw his medal into the Ohio River in frustration over the racism he still experienced in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Some historians dispute this story and suggest that Ali just lost the medal. Either way, he was given a replacement when he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

4. Muhammad Ali was an actual superhero.

In 1978, DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali—an oversize comic in which Muhammad Ali defeats Superman and saves the world. In real life, Ali did save a man from suicide. In 1981, a man threatened to jump from the ninth story of a building in L.A.’s Miracle Mile neighborhood. Ali’s friend Howard Bingham witnessed the unfolding drama and called the boxer, who lived nearby. Ali rushed into the building and successfully talked the man down from the ledge.

5. Muhammad Ali starred in a Broadway show.

In Oscar Brown, Jr.'s 1969 musical adaptation of Joseph Dolan Tuotti's play Big Time Buck White, Ali played a militant black intellectual who speaks at a political meeting. The play ran for only five nights at the George Abbot Theatre in New York. His Playbill bio reported that Ali "is now appealing his five-year prison conviction and $10,000 fine for refusing to enter the armed services on religious grounds. The Big Time Buck White role that he has accepted is much like the life he lives off stage in reality.”

What's the Difference Between Pool and Billiards?

iStock.com/Steevy84
iStock.com/Steevy84

Walk into a bar or private rec room and you're likely to encounter a pool table, with patrons and guests leaning over a green felt surface and striking a white cue ball with a cue stick in an effort to sink the rest of the balls into six pockets. If you're invited to join, most people will ask about a game of pool, not a game of billiards. Yet both terms seemingly refer to the same activity. What's the difference?

According to the Billiard Congress of America, billiards was developed out of a lawn game similar to croquet in the 15th century. When play moved indoors, green tables were used to simulate grass. Originally, the balls in billiards were driven by a mace with a large tip instead of a stick and through something similar to a croquet wick. The game evolved and expanded over time to include pocketed tables and shot-calling for points, enjoying wide popularity in America in the 1920s. The term billiards comes from the French words billart ("wooden stick") and bille ("ball").

As the popularity of billiards grew, billiards tables became common sights in gambling parlors where horse racing wagers or other bets were being placed. Because a collection of wagers is known as a pool, pocket billiards began to be associated with the term. Some professional pool players still use the term billiards to describe what's more commonly known as pool. Typically, billiards can refer to any kind of tabletop game played with a cue stick and cue ball, while pool largely means a game with pockets.

In the UK, however, billiards can refer to English Billiards, a variation in which only three balls are used, with the player striking his cue ball and a red striker ball to move his opponent's cue ball. There are no pockets used in the game.

You may wonder where this leaves snooker, an even more obscure game. Since it's played with a cue and a cue ball, it's technically billiards, but snooker has a specific rule set involving 22 balls that need to be sunk with consideration given to each color's point value. At 10 to 12 feet in length, a snooker table is also larger than a conventional pool surface (from 7 to 9 feet) and its pockets are an inch smaller in diameter.

The bottom line? If you're in a social setting and get challenged to a game of billiards, it's probably going to be pool. If you're in the UK, it could mean the pocket-less version. And if you get challenged to a game of snooker, be prepared for a very lengthy explanation of the rules.

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