The International Olympic Committee may be trying to remain neutral, but its games have been essentially and often overtly politically oriented — both for the Games as a whole and for the athletes competing in the Games.
Diplomatic eruptions are a good example. Many hundreds of athletes have traveled to an Olympic Games without ever returning to their home country to compete on the track, in the pool or on the mat. Since 1948, when the Olympics were reopened in London, their stories have shown that politics is always present when people meet for sport.
The sprinter from Belarus, Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who left Tokyo early Wednesday to seek refuge, fits into that long tradition — yet with a unique reason.
Many athletes who defected competed using a type of flag of convenience. They traveled from Eastern Europe to the Summer Games with the intention of heading west. The Olympics provided an escape from authoritarian regimes in the home and no more than at the height of the Cold War.
More than 100 athletes fled West Germany after the 1972 Munich Olympics to seek refuge. In many cases they moved on to better lives in democratically-governed countries. The reasons for success varied — political ideology, peaceful living conditions or the opportunity to be an athlete at their best.
Tsimanouskaya didn’t plan to flee Japan after arriving from Belarus, which has been in turmoil for the past year. She had disagreements with her coaches regarding relay race team selection and posted her views on social media. She was a pariah in Belarus where dissent is life-threatening.
She leaves with a chapter in an illustrious Olympic history. How many other Olympians were caught at the intersection between sport and diplomacy before her?
LONDON, 1948 (AND BEYOND).
Oscar Charles played a different role in three consecutive Summer Games water-polo tournaments.
Born Oszkar in Hungary, he was instrumental in the success of the national team to take silver in London. To avoid communist rule in Hungary, he defected and stayed in Britain. He emigrated to Australia two years later and was the coach of its team at Helsinki Olympics 1952.
In 1956, the Olympics opened in Australia. It was three weeks after Soviet Union forces invaded Hungary in an attempt to suppress a popular uprising. Charles was a radio commentator there and was also poolside during the famous “Blood in the Water”, a water polo match in which Hungary defeated the Soviet team 4-0 in an infamously violent clash.
According to an Australian newspaper’s 2008 obituary, Charles “was only slightly restrained from jumping in the pool.”
The opening ceremony of the Melbourne Olympics was held in the Southern hemisphere during the summer of 1956. Hungary sent over 100 athletes, many of them from a country in turmoil following Soviet forces’ invasion. This included Agnes Keleti (gymnast), who won two gold medals and two more silvers before fleeing to Australia.
She was among dozens of eastern European competitors who refused to return home. The United States allowed at least 40 Olympic athletes to be taken in, 35 of them from the Hungary team at Melbourne.
Keleti moved to Israel where she lived until six-years ago. She is now 100 years old and the oldest Olympic champion living in Hungary.
It was a tempting prospect to defect in the United States. Atlanta was a good place to start.
Raed Ahmed, Iraq’s flag bearer during the opening ceremony, fled the Olympic Village after he had finished weightlifting. He was trying to flee Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Rolando Arrojo, Cuba’s pitcher, helped win baseball gold at 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He was preparing for the defense of that title. Fidel Castro, Cuba’s president, branded him a “Judas” after he evaded security at a Georgia hotel. He was a Tampa Bay Devil Ray two years later and an MLB all-star.
Ayouba Ali Sihame, the swimmer representing Comoros in London was the only one. After competing in the 100 meter freestyle, she was 17 years old and left the Olympic Village.
Later, she said that she was afraid of going home and being forced to marry an older man by her family. She said her family wanted to capitalize on her Olympic fame.
These details were revealed in an English court where she was convicted of using a fake passport to attempt to enter France in 2013. After serving her sentence in jail, her lawyers stated that she would apply for asylum. They didn’t realize she could legally apply while she was at the Olympics.
Many African athletes disappeared in Britain during their six-month Olympic visas.