'Missing' African Olympians may be after new life

By Sylvia Hui

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 15 2012 11:55 a.m. MDT

The Olympic rings stand illuminated over the Olympic flame during the Closing Ceremony at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

Alastair Grant, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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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 disappeared from the athletes' village, and their whereabouts remain a mystery.

The London Games are not the first time such reports have surfaced: There is a well-established history, dating back to the Cold War, 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 a 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 10 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.

The report followed confirmation Tuesday from Salamata Cisse, head of Ivory Coast's Olympic delegation, that two swimmers and a wrestling coach had disappeared from their quarters in London.

In Guinea, sports minister Titi Camara also confirmed that three athletes had not returned to the west African country after the Olympics.

"They told their friends that they weren't going to come back to Guinea," said N'famara Bangoura, a Guinean sports journalist. "Here, there is no infrastructure, no equipment, no qualified coaches for them to become good athletes."

Last week, Cameroon's Olympic team asked for help from London officials to look for seven athletes who disappeared after they finished their games. Its press attache, Emmanuel Tataw, said this has happened before to squads competing in Melbourne and Athens.

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 judo competitor Cedric Mandembo and three others from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Britain's Home Office would not comment on the reports, saying it does not speak about individual cases.

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. Visa overstays and asylum applications also followed the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Olympic defections were common during the Cold War. One of the best-known incidents was in Melbourne, 1956, when half the Hungarian delegation defected to the West after the games.

Experts say it is too early to tell what will happen to the African 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 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's 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."

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Associated Press writers Robbie Corey-Boulet in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and Boubacar Diallo in Conakry, Guinea, contributed to this report.

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