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Expresso Sports Feature: Why do athletes go ‘missing’ from international sporting events?

You are listening to the Expresso Sports Update. Here’s an article on why many athletes are missing from international sporting events, presented by The Indian Express.
“During the 22nd Commonwealth Games it was reported that three members of the Sri Lanka team had gone missing. While two of those players have since been approached by police, one Sri Lankan wrestler is still missing from the Birmingham, UK games.

Such an episode is not new for Sri Lanka. The country has seen many athletes disappear from international tournaments during years of civil unrest and civil war. The most notorious of these cases was when a 23-man “handball team” disappeared while visiting Germany for “friendly matches” in 2004, with Sri Lankan sports officials claiming they were unaware that the country even had such a team.

These incidents may feel strange to the average person, but there is a long and dramatic history of athletes going “missing” from major international sporting events. A look at why:

The Commonwealth Games is just an international platform where athletes from hundreds of countries have the opportunity to compete and, more importantly, get the opportunity to travel far from home. In the history of the games, players usually “disappear” or run away from countries with a political crisis or an unstable economy.

While their passports and important documents often stay with their coaches and team managers, some simply leave without them and venture into the host country in search of better living conditions. Officially, countries like the UK allow post-game visas for participants and officials for a few months.

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Athletes like Cameroonian sprinter Lamin Tucker, who defected to Australia after the 2006 Commonwealth Games, have at times been granted asylum or protection from deportation because the governing regimes in their home countries do not allow players to challenge the sporting facilities available to them.

In some cases, the reasons for exceeding the length of stay were less serious. When eight Brits overstayed their visas after the 2000 Olympics in Australia, the official reason was ‘sightseeing’. The spokesman for the British Olympic Association said, according to a Guardian report: “You can’t blame the people who have stayed too long, it’s much warmer in Australia.”

At least 13 African athletes disappeared during the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, according to a BBC report at the time. Most of them were from Cameroon, and the team described the disappearance as “desertion.”

Other missing athletes were from Uganda, Sierra Leone and Rwanda. Sometimes even appointed coaches and other staff disappear, as in the case of the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, where more than 40 athletes and officials went missing, overstayed or sought asylum in a country with notoriously strict immigration laws.

Such disappearances are so common at the Olympics that these athletes are often referred to as “Olympic defectors.”

In the modern history of the games, the first cases occurred during the Cold War, when many from communist countries sought “refuge” in western countries.

A 2002 Guardian report detailing the history of missing athletes said: “During the Cold War, such maneuvers were often viewed as politically useful defectors. Today, as with immigrants in general, rich countries are less hospitable.”

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For example, the 1956 Melbourne Olympics took place at a time when the USSR was violently crushing an uprising in Hungary. The Hungarian Olympic team heard the news after landing in Melbourne, and many planned not to return, according to a Washington Post report. During the games, the water polo semi-final between Hungary and the Soviet Union became awkward, and photos showed players with bloodied mouths and foreheads emerging from the pool. Many players fled to the United States after the Games.

A Sierra Leonean athlete who stayed behind in the UK said in the same Guardian report that a variety of factors contributed to his decision. He said: “Athletes had been preparing for the Commonwealth Games for years under difficult circumstances – the weightlifters had trained by lifting up car tires covered with concrete” and they had no money even after the competition as they had to wear raincoats which bought them in a cheap UK shop for the opening ceremony,

While some athletes settle down permanently, work and send money home, others often return to a very different culture after a while due to homesickness, family or lack of opportunities for undocumented foreigners.

Stay or go is a complicated matter once the escape is made. Some from the defectors’ home countries have said in the past that these episodes tarnish their reputation and they are no longer considered serious in sport and follow the international system that governs such events.

Others point to the desperate survival situation in their home countries as a possibly justifiable reason. Weynay Ghebresilasie, an 18-year-old athlete from Eritrea, had applied for asylum in the UK, which he now represents, saying: “I still love my country very much and it’s the harsh conditions and lack of basic human rights that forced me to seek asylum to search”.

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However, various laws and criteria regulate the asylum application, and a lack of economic opportunities is rarely accepted as a reason for asylum. Countries have different policies on granting asylum, leaving such athletes with no clear pathways.”

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