Cameroonian delegation at the opening ceremony of Olympics 2012
A defector foregoes allegiance to one state in exchange for a "better" life in another. There have been many reported incidents of athletes defecting in the sports world, with a large media focus on ‘disappearing’ athletes in major sporting events such as the Olympic Games. To date, most of the athletes who've chosen to forgo their loyalty to their national team in order to seek refugee or asylum in another country originate from the post-Soviet states, Cuba, North Korea, Eritrea and Sudan, all of which have experienced repressive regimes.
Now, Cameroon’s entire boxing team and half of their swimming team have gone ‘missing’ at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Various media reports state that the athletes are going to seek asylum in the UK or another European country, although the athletes' visas don't expire till November, so they haven't actually done anything wrong. The athletes refused to hand in their passports for safekeeping before the start of the Olympics, further hinting that their disappearance was planned. One of the missing boxers, Thomas Essomba, also disappeared after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, but later returned to Cameroon. At the time, he was open with reporters and his fellow countrymen about his hopes for better living and working conditions in China; things just hadn't worked out. This time the defections have put Cameroon in the spotlight. There's been some talk in the media of misappropriation of funds meant for Olympic teams. Meanwhile, newspapers in Cameroon have been reporting that the athletes often complained of poor infrastructure, inadequate financing and little government concern for their national athletes.
Thomas Essomba (in blue)
After the entire Eritrean national soccer team absconded in 2009 during a competition in Kenya, a bond fee was introduced to be paid by all Eritrean athletes leaving the country for sporting events, an attempt to guarantee that they would return. Mixed messages were sent out from the Eritrean government to the team that fled in 2009. In their statements they said that the athletes would be welcomed to return home but they also said that the athletes had betrayed their country. The United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) recommends that no country should deport any Eritrean because of the mistreatment of refugees when they return to Eritrea. Should any of those athletes have experienced a change of heart, it is safe to assume they would have not been ‘welcomed’ home. The missing team was kept in a refugee camp in Kenya for eight months under the protection of the UNHCR and were granted asylum in Adelaide, Australia, where they have been divided amongst super league football teams.
Eritrean athletes in Houston
Last year another 13 players from Eritrea disappeared in Tanzania and sought the protection of the UNHCR. This small number of athletes fleeing from Eritrea is a fraction of the thousands of Eritreans that attempt to leave the country every year. An oppressive regime, no freedom of press or religion and a mandatory open-ended military service are all reasons the Human Rights Watch refers to Eritrea as a ‘giant prison’. 4 of those 13 players are now resettled in Houston, Texas. "We didn't have any future," 18 year old refugee Asefaw said. "We were not allowed to go out of the country to play for other teams."
A close eye is being kept on the 2012 Olympic Eritrean team, so close in fact that an official at the Eritrean Embassy in London has already confirmed that all of Eritrea’s 12 athletes will be going home.
It seems a bit much to expect or demand patriotism from athletes when their needs as athletes aren't being met at home. Every country is responsible for the coaching, development and financing of its national teams and there are gaping holes in the infrastructure of National Olympic Committees in certain African countries. Cameroon is among the poorest nations in the world, so a member of the Cameroonian Olympic team can only dream of having access to facilities similar to that available to members of Team USA or Team GB. Money is also a big cause of defection, people seeking the opportunity to make more, often to support their families at home. The likelihood of these individuals being granted visas for work permits or residency in the UK or elsewhere is slim (if that's what they decide to do). Nonetheless, it seems almost inevitable that some poorly-funded athletes will always try their luck elsewhere given the opportunity, and every international sporting event is an opportunity. There are countless successful athletes playing in teams for countries they don’t originate from, some are celebrated and others are considered sell-outs, the line of patriotism has clearly become blurred.