LONDON – Thousands of Olympians have returned to their homelands with the end of the London Games — but more than a dozen African competitors have not.
Even before the closing ceremony, some athletes from impoverished or conflict-ridden nations including Cameroon, Eritrea, Guinea and the Ivory Coast had been reported missing from the athletes’ village.
The London Games are not the first time such reports have surfaced: There is a well-established pattern of sportsmen trying to use international competitions in foreign countries as springboards to a better life.
Athletes attending the London Olympics have the legal right to stay in Britain until November under the terms of their visas, but one of them has already declared that he intends to seek political asylum in Britain.
“I still very much love my country and it’s the harsh conditions and lack of basic human rights which has compelled me to seek asylum,” Eritrean steeplechase runner Weynay Ghebresilasie, 18, told The Guardian newspaper in an interview published Wednesday.
Ghebresilasie, who finished 10th in his first-round heat and did not advance, told the paper that he has become disillusioned with the worsening political conditions in his homeland. He said he’s not alone: Three of his fellow Eritrean teammates, out of delegation of only 12 athletes, have also sought asylum but are reluctant to go public because they fear their families may get into trouble back home.
Eritrea was among the top ten countries of origin for people seeking asylum in the U.K last year, along with Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iran, according to the London-based charity Refugee Council. The northeastern African country also has a past record for missing athletes: In 2009, an entire Eritrean national soccer team defected during a tournament in Kenya to escape their country’s repressive conditions.
The report followed confirmation Tuesday from Salamata Cisse, head of Ivory Coast’s Olympic delegation, that three members of the Ivorian delegation went missing last week. She said they included two swimmers, Frank Olivier and Brou Kouassi, and Assita Toure, who went missing on Aug. 8, and a wrestling coach, Yves Olivier Adje, who went missing Aug. 9.
Last week, Cameroon’s Olympic team asked for help from London officials to look for seven athletes who left the athletes’ village after they finished their games. Its press attaché, Emmanuel Tataw, said this has happened before to squads competing in Melbourne and Athens.
“Most of the time they don’t come back,” he said. Cameroon, a predominantly French-speaking nation of 20 million in west central Africa, is among the poorest nations on earth.
According to African media, other missing athletes include three from Guinea, as well as judo competitor Cedric Mandembo and three others from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
At the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, 20 members of the Sierra Leone team went missing from their camp before the end of the competition. Similar reports of visa overstays and asylum applications surfaced during the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Britain’s Home Office would not comment on the reports, saying it does not speak about individual cases.
Experts say it is too early to tell what will happen to the athletes who have gone missing — they may overstay their visas, apply to become a refugee, or they may well return to their countries before their visas expire.
“Visitors to the U.K. are able to travel the country without restrictions, so providing Olympic athletes have a valid visa at the moment, it would be premature to suggest that any have absconded,” said Carlos Vargas-Silva, a senior researcher at the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.
But he said once in country, it is difficult to track people who decide to overstay their visas.
Donna Covey, the Refugee Council’s chief executive, said that Britain must protect people who can prove they need shelter from conflict because it has signed the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention.
“It a tragic fact that many people competing in the Olympics come from countries around the world where they are at risk of human rights abuses, conflict, and violence,” she said. “Over the last two weeks, we welcomed the world to the U.K. for the Olympics, so we must now also uphold our proud tradition of offering safety to those fleeing persecution.”
Associated Press reporters Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, contributed to this report.