Amid the 22nd Commonwealth Games, which are set to close on August 8, it was reported that three members of the Sri Lankan squad had gone missing. While two of those players have since been spoken to by the police, a Sri Lankan wrestler is still missing from the Games being held in Birmingham, UK.
For Sri Lanka, such an episode is not new. The country has seen many athletes disappear during international tournaments over years of domestic turmoil and civil war. The most infamous of these instances was when a 23-member “handball team” disappeared in 2004 while visiting Germany for ‘friendly games’, with Sri Lankan sports officials claiming they did not know the country even had such a team.
These incidents may appear strange, but there is a long and dramatic history of athletes “going missing” during prominent international sporting events. A look at the reasons behind this:
Commonwealth Games are just one international platform where athletes from hundreds of countries get the chance to compete, and more importantly, get a chance to travel far away from home. In the games’ history, usually players from countries having a political crisis or an unstable economic situation “go missing”, or run away.
While often their passports and important documents remain with their coaches and team mangers, some simply leave without them and venture out into the host country for the chance of better living conditions. Officially, countries like the UK allow visas for a few months after the games for the participants and officials.
Athletes like sprinter Lamin Tucker from Cameroon, who defected to Australia after the 2006 Commonwealth Games, have at times been granted asylum or protection from deportation, given the authoritative regimes at home that do not allow players to question the sports facilities available to them.
In a few cases, the reasons for overstaying have been less grave. When eight British people overstayed their visas possibly for sightseeing after the 2000 Olympics in Australia, the British Olympic Association spokesman, according to a report in the Guardian, said: “You can’t really blame people who have overstayed, it’s an awful lot warmer in Australia.”
During the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, at least 13 African athletes disappeared, as per a BBC report from 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 the appointed coaches and other staff members run away, as was the case at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, where more than 40 athletes and officials went missing, overstayed, or sought asylum, in a country having notoriously tough immigration laws.
In the Olympics, such disappearances are so frequent that these athletes are often addressed as “Olympic defectors”. In the modern history of the games, the early cases were during the Cold War when many from Communist countries sought ‘refuge’ in Western nations.
A 2002 report in the Guardian, detailing the history of missing athletes, said: “During the Cold War such manoeuvres were often seen as politically useful defections. Nowadays, as with immigrants in general, rich countries tend to be less hospitable.”
For instance, the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne were held at a time when the USSR used force to stifle an uprising in Hungary. The Hungarian Olympic team heard the news after they landed in Melbourne, and many planned to not go back, according to a report by The Washington Post. During the games, the water polo semifinal between Hungary and the Soviet Union turned nasty, and photos showed players with bloody mouths and foreheads coming out of the pool. Many players ended up defecting to the US after the games.
A sportsperson from Sierra Leone, who stayed back in the UK, said in the same Guardian report that a variety of factors contributed to his decision. “Athletes had been preparing for the Commonwealth Games for years in difficult circumstances — the weightlifters had trained by lifting car tyres covered in concrete,” and they had no money even after competing, having to wear raincoats bought in a cheap UK store for the opening ceremony, the athlete said.
To stay or to go back?
While some athletes end up settling permanently, working jobs and sending money back home, others often go back after some time due to homesickness, family, or a lack of opportunity for foreigners without proper documentation in an entirely different culture.
Staying or leaving is a complicated issue, once the escape has been made. Some from the home countries of the defectors have said in the past that these episodes weaken their standing, and they are no longer seen as serious about sports and following the international system that governs such events.
Others point to the desperate situations of survival in home countries as a possibly justifiable reason. Weynay Ghebresilasie, an 18-year-old athlete from Eritrea, had applied for asylum in the UK, which it now represents, and said, “I still very much love my country and it’s the harsh conditions and lack of basic human rights which has compelled me to seek asylum”, in an interview with The Guardian.
However, various laws and criteria govern applying for asylum, and the lack of economic opportunities is rarely accepted as a reason for giving asylum. Countries have different policies on granting asylum, leaving such athletes without definite paths.