TOKYO (AP) – For all the discussions the International Olympic Committee has about neutrality, its games have long proven to be primarily and sometimes overtly political – for the Games as a whole, and often for the athletes who are meant to entertain the world in a two-week global show.
Example: diplomatic eruptions. Hundreds of athletes came to the Olympics and never returned to the home nation they represented in the pool, on the mat or on the track. Their stories since 1948, when the Olympics resumed in London after a wartime hiatus, confirm that when the world comes together for sport, the politics are still there.
Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who left Tokyo early on Wednesday seeking refuge is part of this long tradition – but with a unique reason.
Most of the athletes who defected competed under some sort of flag of convenience – traveling to the Summer Games from Eastern Europe with the intention of heading west. The Olympics provided an escape route from the country’s authoritarian regimes, and at no time more than at the height of the Cold War.
After the 1972 Munich Olympics, more than 100 athletes remained in West Germany to seek refuge before, in many cases, moving on to life in democratically managed countries. Those whose plans were successful cited various reasons – political ideology, the prospect of a more peaceful life, or simply the chance to achieve their true worth as an athlete.
Tsimanouskaya had no plans to flee when he arrived in Japan from Belarus, a country in turmoil for a year since the contested re-election of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko. She disagreed with her coaches over the team’s selection for the relay races and shared her thoughts on social media. This has made her an outcast in Belarus, where dissent can be life threatening.
But she leaves after having written a page in an Olympic history rich in history. What other Olympians have been caught at the intersection of sport and diplomacy?
LONDON, 1948 (AND BEYOND)
Oscar Charles played a different role in three consecutive Summer Games water polo tournaments.
Born Oszkar Csuvik in Hungary, he helped the national team win silver in London. He defected to stay in Britain and avoid returning to the Communist regime in his home country. Two years later, he emigrated to Australia and coached his team for the Helsinki Olympics in 1952.
The Olympics arrived in Australia in 1956, opening in Melbourne three weeks after forces from the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to crush a popular uprising. Charles worked there as a radio commentator and was by the pool for the âBlood in the Waterâ water polo match in which Hungary beat the Soviet team 4-0 in a famous clash and violent.
Charles “was barely prevented from jumping into the pool,” according to an Australian newspaper obituary in 2008.
Held in the southern hemisphere summer, the Melbourne Olympics kicked off on November 22, 1956. Hungary sent over 100 athletes from a country in turmoil after invading Soviet forces, including the great gymnast Ãgnes Keleti, who won gold and two silver medals and defected to Australia.
She joined dozens of Eastern European athletes who refused to return home. The United States has authorized the hosting of at least 40 Olympic athletes, including 35 from the Hungarian team in Melbourne.
Keleti went to Israel, where she lived until six years ago. Now in Hungary, she turned 100 in January and is the oldest living Olympic champion.
Defection to the United States was an interesting prospect. Atlanta offered an opportunity.
The Iraqi flag bearer at the opening ceremony, Raed Ahmed, fled the Olympic village after competing in weightlifting competitions. He wanted to escape Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Pitcher Rolando Arrojo helped Cuba win baseball gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and was preparing to defend their title. He escaped team safety at a hotel in Georgia and was quickly labeled “Judas” by Cuban President Fidel Castro. Just two years later, as the Tampa Bay Devil Ray, he was an MLB star.
Ayouba-Ali Sihame was the only swimmer representing the African island of Comoros in London. Then aged 17, she left the Olympic Village after competing in the 100-meter freestyle.
She later said she feared returning home and being sold by her family into a forced marriage to a much older man. She said her family wanted to cash in on her Olympic fame.
These details emerged in an English court in 2013 where she was convicted of using a false passport to attempt to enter France. Her lawyers said she would seek asylum after serving her prison sentence, failing to realize she could apply legally during the Olympics.
Several African athletes have also disappeared in Britain while on six-month Olympic visas.
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