Winner of most 2012 Olympic defections: Cameroon

Economic misery (or opportunity) drives many Olympic athletes to defect in modern times, but political defections still plague communist bloc teams such as Cuba.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Paddy Barnes of Ireland (r.) makes contact with Thomas Essomba of Cameroon, during their fight at the men's light flyweight boxing competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. This year, 15 African athletes and coaches have defected, with Cameroon in the lead - seven of its 37 athletes have been confirmed missing, including Essomba.

After the medal count comes the head count.

This year’s Olympics in London brought news of Olympic athletes who defected, disappeared, or went on the run, some of them before they even had a chance to compete, more than 20 at last count. Olympic defections are a relatively common affair, but the end of the cold war in 1989 meant that most modern sports defections – with the possible exception of Cuba, the grand champion of defection – are largely economically motivated.

This year, 15 African athletes and coaches have defected, with Cameroon in the lead – seven of its 37 athletes have been confirmed missing. The first to leave was Drusille Ngako, a goalkeeper on the women’s soccer team, followed soon after by swimmer Paul Ekane Edingue, and boxers Thomas Essomba, Christian Donfack Adjoufack, Mewoli Abdon, Blaise Yepmou Mendouo, and Serge Ambomo.

Athletes weren’t the only ones to disappear. Four Congolese team members, including a coach and a technical athletic director, also failed to return to their home countries after the Olympic Games ended last week.

Ethiopia also deserves honorable mention for the disappearance of 15-year-old torch bearer Nathaniel Yemane, who was later found “safe and well” in Nottingham. Apparently, Nathaniel simply got lost. 

Seventy years ago, Olympic defections were all about cold war politics. Marie Provaznikova, a Czech gymnastics coach, was the first to defect in 1948, soon after the Soviet Union turned what was then Czechoslovakia into a client state. 

But since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, most defections have been economically motivated.

The benefits of flight are easy to understand. Olympic athletes may be among the better fed and looked after citizens in their home countries, but few will have experienced the modern conveniences of even a basic hotel in London. Thousands of Africans every year pay top dollar to human traffickers for the chance to cross the Mediterranean, without visas, as stowaways on cargo ships to Europe, and hundreds more of middle-class tourists or university students overstay their visas and seek asylum. That a few Cameroonian athletes would do so as well should come as no surprise.

Political defections still happen, but even for communist Cuba, the grand champion of defection, athlete disappearances can be blamed on filthy lucre. In a country where athletes are paid $16 monthly salaries at home (and $300 stipends for gold-medal winners), but could earn as much as $30 million just 90 miles away in the United States (as Cuban pitcher Aroldis Chapman did, by signing a five-year contract with the Cincinnati Reds), money does hold a certain allure.

Sadly, the job market that the 15 African athletes will find themselves in, in the European Union, is hardly robust. According to Eurostat, the European Union’s statistics agency, some 25 million people living in the Euro zone are unemployed, a rate of some 11.2 percent. For swimmers, boxers, and even coaches, it might be difficult to find even a job as a waiter or a construction worker.

But back home in Cameroon, many young people say they hold no grudge against the defected athletes. Cameroonian journalist Jean-Bruno Tagne told Radio Netherlands Worldwide in the Cameroonian capital of Yaounde, “Having been around these sportsmen and knowing the conditions under which they live and train, we can at least understand that, in a survival reflex, they try to flee.”

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