In Sep. 2004, the Sri Lankan national handball team arrived in Munich to play a series of matches against local players from TSV Wittislingen as part of a tournament organized by the nonprofit Asian-German Sports Exchange Program.
At least, that was the story.
In reality Sri Lanka had no national handball team, and some of the 16 players and their eight coaches didn’t seem to understand the game. One day, they went out for a run, and never returned; they left a note saying they had run away to France. The incident attracted international attention and was even turned into a movie.
There is a long tradition of athletes using international sporting events to run away from their home countries and seek asylum elsewhere. In fact, according to Mary Anne Kenny, an associate professor of law at Murdoch University in Australia, it happens so often that host countries are prepared for it. “Athletes seek asylum at almost every games,” she writes in The Conversation, “as is their right.”
But Olympic authorities in Japan may not have been prepared for the series of incidents that led a Belarusian sprinter to seek refuge in Poland this week. It’s also a sign of how easily global politics can seep into the “apolitical” Olympics.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is a 24-year-old sprinter who typically competes in the 100m and 200m. The Tokyo Games were her first Olympics.
Last week, Tsimanouskaya alleged on Instagram that her coaches signed her up for the 4 x 400 m relay—an event she didn’t train for—because Belarusian sporting officials failed to submit the required doping test results for other athletes on the team. She said members of the team then tried to force her onto a flight back to Minsk; she refused to board, and asked Japanese police and Olympic authorities to get involved. She later obtained a visa to Poland, and is now at the Polish embassy in Tokyo.
In August of last year, Belarus erupted in protests against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko, known as “Europe’s last dictator.” The European Union and other powers have called Lukashenko’s re-election fraudulent and sanctioned him and his son Viktor. Meanwhile, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee barred Viktor Lukashenko from leading the Belarusian National Olympic Committee or from attending the Games.
The US ambassador to Belarus expressed her support for Tsimanouskaya, as did several European foreign affairs chiefs:
For some athletes, the Games are the opportunity of a lifetime to escape oppressive conditions back home, and obtain visas for often-inaccessible Western countries.
At the 2012 London Olympics, 15 athletes from African countries including Cameroon, Sudan, and Ethiopia went missing, and several of them later requested asylum in the UK. In 2018, more than 200 African athletes and officials applied for asylum during the Commonwealth Games in Australia. And many members of the Hungarian Olympic team famously defected during the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne after they found out the Soviet Union stamped out the Hungarian Revolution in Budapest.
The Olympics and many other high-profile sporting events strive to remain politically neutral. But there is a limit to what they can control, and high-profile defections show just how challenging that mission is.