Before the pomp and swagger of the extravagant opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics in London had even began, while the torch was still cold and unlit, an unidentified athlete disappeared from his training camp, re-appearing at a police station in Leeds on the 24th of July. The still unidentified athlete claimed that he was being persecuted in his home country and was seeking political asylum. Earlier this week three Sudanese athletes who had been part of their country's Olympic training squad also disappeared from the Olympic village and are expected to seek political asylum in Britain.
T.S. Elliot once said that, "Humankind cannot bear much reality," which is perhaps why the sometimes grotesque spectacle of the Olympic Games is so popular. The glitz and glamour blinds our eyes to the still sordid nature of much of the world. Asylum seekers at the Olympic Games are a poignant example of reality being unconcerned with our pretentions and intruding on the party.
Most of the athletes who are not planning to return home wait until after the games have been completed to overstay their visas or claim asylum, and so it will be interesting to see how many additional athletes wander into waiting taxis and "disappear" from the Olympic village.
There are certain to be empty seats on planes returning to a number of countries in the Middle East and Africa after the closing ceremonies. So pronounced and embarrassing has the spectacle of this problem become to many of our poor nations that athletes from some countries such as Eritrea have been forced to pay a bond before they travel to compete (the bond is repaid when they return home).
Other states such as North Korea are not so kind as to solely demand financial security if their athletes are "chosen" to attend the Games. Escapees from the theocratic dictatorship (what some consider a theocratic necrocracy) claim that the families of North Korean athletes are kept in close proximity to government officials and sent to labour camps or worse if they claim asylum or embarrasses the government.
North Korea is so concerned about it's athletes claiming asylum or otherwise absconding that they are forced to stay in a private housing facility where they interact with no other athletes, are forbidden from sightseeing, leave only to compete or practice and fly home immediately after the closing ceremonies. Upon winning the Gold medal in weightlifting for North Korea in the women's 69-kilogram class, Rim Jon Sim declared, "I thought that it was my duty as an athlete of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea to give joy to our supreme leader, general Kim Jong Un. At that moment that was my motivation. To exert extra power to please the general."
Right. I hope her family is safe.
Each four years some athletes are forced to make the difficult choice of improving their lives by claiming asylum or competing on the global stage. Before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, an ill-advised location in which to claim asylum unless you are also a masochist, seven members of the Cuban soccer team sought asylum in America after a qualifying game in Florida. Mehboba Ahdyar, a 19-year-old runner and the only female athlete on Afghanistan's 2008 Olympic team disappeared from her training camp in Italy and claimed political asylum in Norway.
A year later in 2009 the entire Eritrean national football team fled during a competition in Kenya. Only a coach and an official emerged from the team's plane when it returned home. Immigration officials in the UK say that up to 2 percent of athletes, team officials and supporters are expected to claim refuge in the UK during and after the 2012 Olympic Games or try and over-stay their visas.
The Olympics are a tribute to human athleticism and dedication but they are also an anachronism in which some are competing for glory and pride whereas, others, like gladiators, are competing for the lives of their families or in fear for their personal security. When athletes seek asylum it serves as visible repudiation of the regimes from whom they seek it and their values. Athletes at the games should be free to move as they please, mingle with other athletes and have a taste of a world they may not be able to enjoy at home.
"Inspire a Generation" is the official slogan of these Olympic Games. And they should inspire us to remember that we are all, despite our nation states, skin tones, languages and various beliefs in the supernatural, a part of the same human family. They should inspire us to be better. That, is what the real Olympic spirit is all about.