Missing Athletes Join Long List Of Olympic Defectors

Multiple Olympians have gone missing from the Olympic Village in London — including seven members of the Cameroon delegation, three from Sudan and one from Ethiopia. One of the athletes is known to have asked for asylum. But the whereabouts of the rest are a mystery. If they have defected, they will join a long tradition of Olympic athletes who have used the Games as an opportunity to escape from their country of origin. Melissa Block speaks with Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, about the history of Olympic defections.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now to the case of the missing Olympians. Seven competitors from Cameroon have gone missing in London - five boxers, a swimmer and a soccer goalie; six men and one woman. It's presumed they may seek asylum in England. And if so, they'll join a long list of athletes who have defected during Olympic Games.

For more on who has defected and why, I'm joined by Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. He's at the games in London. David, welcome to the program.

DAVID WALLECHINSKY: Thank you.

BLOCK: First, what's the latest on these seven Cameroonians; what have you heard?

WALLECHINSKY: I haven't heard them found yet. What I found interesting is one of them, Thomas Essomba, had tried to defect four years ago, in Beijing. In fact, he did spend some time in China; found that economic prospects weren't too good there, not to mention the political prospects. He returned to Cameroon. They sent him to a second Olympics, and now he's disappeared again.

BLOCK: Well, let's go back in time a bit. A lot of athlete defections came, of course, during the Cold War, including a major incident during the Melbourne Olympics, in 1956. Tell us about that.

WALLECHINSKY: Well that was the big one. Just prior to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary - and occupied Hungary. And so when the Hungarian athletes were in Melbourne - in Australia, at the Olympics - they started to learn from translations of English-language newspapers, what was going on back in their country. Afterwards, there was big fighting in the match between the Soviet Union and Hungary, in a water polo tournament. The match had to be stopped. There was a famous photograph of one of the Hungarians emerging from the pool, with blood streaming down his face.

So afterwards, there was a lot of discussion amongst the Hungarian athletes and their coaches - what should we do; should we go back? At the end of the games, about three dozen members of the Hungarian delegation - perhaps more - did not return to Hungary. Many of them went to the United States; some of them eventually went back to Hungary.

BLOCK: I was surprised to read that there has been no North Korean athlete defection. And you might think that that would be a country that would be ripe for an athlete to choose the Olympics to defect. That hasn't happened?

WALLECHINSKY: No, not at all. I have actually visited North Korea, and this is the most repressive country I've ever been to. What they do is, they threaten the families. And I know that I once interviewed - I went to Albania one week after the fall of communism, and I tracked down their greatest athlete ever in the Olympics, who was a weight lifter; who was then working as a clown, a circus clown. And he told me that when he went to the 1972 Olympics, there was one minder for every athlete. They were never allowed to be alone. And I'm sure that's the exact, same thing that the North Koreans are doing.

BLOCK: Is there a pattern to how these defections happen? Are the athletes sneaking away from the athletes' village, from the games themselves?

WALLECHINSKY: In the case of the Cameroonians, they did disappear, in the middle of the night, from the Olympic Village. Very often, they'd been contacted by the emigre community. I would imagine that that's the case for the Cameroonians. There are political refugees from Cameroon, in London. And so it's quite possible that they - one way or the other - made contacts with these athletes and said, we will help you.

BLOCK: Had the London hosts been gearing up for a wave of defections during these games? Would this be something that would be expected, and that the country would brace for?

WALLECHINSKY: The government of Great Britain was definitely expecting defections, and had prepared a whole format of what they were going to do. They thought there might be defections, either from some of the African dictatorships - or who knows where. And there is a whole procedure. I know that the immigration department was preparing for this.

BLOCK: And in the past, have these asylum seekers been successful? Have they been granted asylum?

WALLECHINSKY: Yeah, asylum seekers are almost always granted asylum. It just doesn't happen, that they get sent back. And certainly, the British government has a long, long history of accepting political refugees, not just from sporting events but in general - and from Cameroon, indeed.

BLOCK: David Wallechinsky, thanks so much for talking with us.

WALLECHINSKY: Thank you.

BLOCK: David Wallechinsky is author of "The Complete Book of the Olympics." He spoke with us from London.

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