News / Africa

Some African Olympians Choose to Defect After Games

Eritrea's flag bearer Weynay Ghebresilasie holds the national flag as he leads the contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, July 27, 2012.
Eritrea's flag bearer Weynay Ghebresilasie holds the national flag as he leads the contingent in the athletes parade during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, July 27, 2012.
Anita Powell
JOHANNESBURG — The 2012 Olympics ended recently but some of the athletes have stayed behind in Britain. About a dozen African competitors have chosen to defect, including the man who carried the flag for Eritrea. 

Uganda’s gold medal-winning marathoner returned home this week to a parade, a presidential welcome and a check for $80,000.

Not all of Africa’s Olympians have been welcomed home like Uganda's Stephen Kiprotich.

In fact, at least a dozen appear to have left the Olympic village and sought asylum in Britain.

First, seven athletes in Cameroon's delegation left the Olympic village with no explanation during the Games.  Their whereabouts are still unknown.  Sources close to the Cameroonian delegation in London had told Voice of America that the athletes defected to seek economic opportunities abroad.

Then a United Nations-run radio station reported that four members of Congo's Olympic delegation had disappeared.

And most recently, the man chosen to carry Eritrea's flag at the opening ceremony, steeplechase runner Weynay Ghebresilasie sought political asylum along with three other members of the Eritrean delegation.  Those three have asked not to be identified out of fear for their safety.

The Eritrean athletes join dozens of their fellow citizens who have defected over the last decade.  Among them, entire soccer [football] teams.

Weynay, who did not make the finals in the men's steeplechase, said he felt that conditions at home seemed to be getting worse.
Aaron Berhane, a Toronto-based spokesman for the Eritrean Youth Solidarity for Change group, says the athletes left for the same reason as so many thousands of other Eritreans who have fled.

"In Eritrea, we have a very dictatorial regime," he said. "There is no freedom of speech, there is no freedom of movement, there is no freedom of religion.  The country is under a totalitarian government."

These disappearing African athletes have several things in common. All come from nations crippled by poverty, corruption and longtime leaders who refuse to relinquish power.

Cameroon has been led since 1982 by President Paul Biya, who has been criticized for becoming increasingly authoritarian.

Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, was reelected last year.  The electoral results were rejected by the opposition.

And Eritrea has been led for all of its existence by one man, President Isaias Afwerki.  He took power when the nation gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Rights groups say Mr. Isaias' administration has jailed countless political opponents, repressed freedoms and repeatedly postponed elections.  Army service is mandatory.

Among the conscripts, said London-based Bereket Khasai, was Weynay, who spent more than his required 18 months in the service and still could not leave the army.

Bereket, another member of the Eritrean group who has been in constant contact with Weynay, says the young man is physically and psychologically exhausted.  

He says Weynay was questioned for 11 hours on Thursday and is now in detention, hopefully with the intent of having his asylum request expedited.

"He didn’t plan to seek asylum before he came to the U.K. hoping that things would get better in the future in the country for him and for his people and his family, and unfortunately he realized day by day  that things are going wrong, especially when he came to the Olympics and obviously experienced similar treatment by the Eritrean federation for sport, so that's when he decided to claim asylum, once he competed in the 3,000-meter steeplechase," Bereket said.

Also, not one of the defecting athletes has won a medal.

Bereket says that had Weynay won a medal, things might have been different.  But he says the athletes complained that they were mistreated and under-trained by their national delegation while in London.

This year's rash of defections is in contrast to the last Olympics.

Only one athlete attempted to defect from the Beijing Games.  That was Cameroonian athlete Thomas Essomba, but changed his mind there.  He was among those who left their teams in London.

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