The torch has not yet been lit, but the first Olympic athlete has already requested asylum in Great Britain. CBS News reports that a Sudanese runner scheduled to compete in the 800-meter race has appeared at a police station in Leeds and asked for political asylum.
It is not surprising that a Sudanese man would seek asylum–his country is run by an indicted war criminal, Omar Al Bashir, who is responsible for many thousands of deaths. As the games continue, it will be interesting to see how many more Sudanese (and athletes from other countries) seek protection in Great Britain. The New York Times has listed several noteworthy instances of athletes seeking asylum at previous Games:
In August 1948, London was the scene of one of the earliest reported asylum requests by someone associated with the Olympic Games. Marie Provaznikova, 57, the leader of the Czechoslovakian women’s gymnastics team and one of the most popular women in her country, sought asylum in the United States rather than support a purge in the Sokol national fitness organization, of which she was a leader.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, an Iraqi weight lifter, Raed Ahmed, ran from the athletes’ village into a waiting car and sought asylum from Saddam Hussein’s government. He was allowed to stay in the United States after he cited a fear of execution upon his return. Persistent rumors from Iraq suggested that Mr. Hussein’s son Uday used beatings and other torture to punish those who did not perform to his liking at international sporting events.
Before the 2008 Olympics, seven members of the Cuban soccer team sought asylum after a qualifying game against the United States in Florida. At the time, one of them, Yenier Bermudez, told The Miami Herald that the players were “feeling hopeful about our new lives.”
The entire Eritrean national soccer team fled during a 2009 competition in Kenya. Only a coach and an official emerged from the team’s plane when it returned home. It was the third time that players had failed to return, soccer officials said. Eritrean athletes are now asked to pay a bond before leaving the country for sporting events, the BBC reported.
Frankly, I think it is wonderful when high-profile athletes defect from repressive regimes. It serves as a visible repudiation of those regimes and perhaps provides some succor to the regimes’ opponents.
While one athlete defecting from Sudan will probably not bring down the government, it does serve as a powerful reminder that the government of that country represses and murders its own people. And sometimes the actions of one person capture the moment and cause great change. Witness Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit vendor whose suicide launched the Arab Spring. I do not know whether the Sudanese athlete’s defection will have any larger effect on his country, but we can always hope.