Hope and heartbreak of Olympic defectors who used games to flee oppression

As Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanaouskaya is granted asylum in Poland after and refusing to fly home, we look at 1948 to today and the history of defectors’ hope and heartbreak at the Olympic Games

Julius Ssekitoleko of Uganda disappeared from Tokyo

While the talk at every Olympic Games inevitably leads to the medal count, in the past some countries have also needed a head count.

Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is the latest in a line of athletes who have used the global sporting celebration to defect.

The 200m runner was today granted asylum in Poland after falling out with team officials and refusing to fly home.

Tsimanaouakaya is lucky, others have been less fortunate.

At the 1976 Games in Montreal, 17-year-old Russian diver Sergei Nemtsanov sought refuge in Canada.

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Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya talks with police officers at Haneda international airport in Tokyo



The head of the Soviet Olympic squad said unidentified terrorists had kidnapped and brainwashed him to “embrace freedom”.

Nemtsanov had actually fallen in love with a female diver from Cincinnati and was hiding with a family in Ontario.

The teenager eventually had to revoke his defection and left the country broken-hearted.

The first recorded absconder was Marie Provaznikova, the Czech women’s gymnastics coach, who refused to go home after her team won gold at the 1948 Games in London.

Marie Provazníková was a Czechoslovak sports official active in the Sokol movement

Natneal Yemane carrying the Olympic Flame in 2012



After a few months’ stay, she moved to the US where she taught PE and lived to be 100.

During the 1996 Atlanta Games, Afghanistan’s flag bearer, boxer Jawid Aman Mukhamad, sought asylum in Canada.

Afghan officials told him that he would not be allowed to compete in the Games because they believed he was a communist because he had trained in Russia.

London 2012 proved the most fertile ground for those seeking another life with seven Cameroon athletes falling off the map.

Krystsina Tsimanouskay enters the Polish embassy in Tokyo



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Defections were reported from the Ethiopian, Sudanese and Congo teams but it was Cameroon who attracted the most attention…and admiration.

Drusille Ngako, a reserve goalkeeper for the women’s football team, was first to disappear, followed by swimmer Paul Edingue. Five eliminated boxers soon followed.

Cameroonian journalist Jean-Bruno Tagne said: “Having been around these sportsmen and knowing the conditions under which they live and train, we can at least understand, in a survival reflex they try to flee.”

Economist Flaubert Mbiekop said: “The bottom line is to look at the economic conditions in Cameroon and see how hard the system is for many people, especially the athletes who don’t receive any support from the government.

“London presented an opportunity. I’m not at all surprised that they took it.”

A week after their disappearance, the boxers resurfaced at the Double Jab Boxing Club in New Cross, south London.

The club’s motto is “jab, don’t stab” and the boxers turned up unannounced and asked if they could take part in a training session.

Jim Addis, the club’s assistant coach, said: “We were even more dumbfounded when we realised who they were as we knew they’d gone missing after being eliminated from the Games.

“They all took part in sparring sessions. It was amazing. It was a great honour to have them train in the gym. They have promised to come back.”

The boxers’ initial asylum applications failed but with help from the likes of church groups they were granted the right to stay.

Serge Ambomo ended up in Sheffield, Donfack Adjoufack in Middlesbrough and Abdon Mewoli in Rotherham.

Ambomo said: “As soon as I got on the plane to come to England, I knew I was saved. I feel like I’ve been born again.”

Back to the current day in Tokyo and Ugandan weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko.

The 20-year-old left behind a note, his luggage and and a dose of embarrassment for officials.

“We have already apologised to the government of Japan for the disappearance of the weightlifter,” said a spokesman in Uganda. “It was unacceptable conduct and treachery.”

And finally, Ethiopia deserves an honorable mention for the disappearance of 15-year-old torch bearer Natnael Yemane.

He was one of 20 kids chosen to carry the flame in 2012 as part of an international inspiration programme but went missing from Nottingham’s Jurys Inn hotel.

Police were alerted but he was found safe and well the next day. Natnael had apparently simply got lost.

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