Thought and Ideas
East or West, is the West best?
Posted Sunday, August 19 2012 at 01:00
Ordinarily the above headline should have featured the word ‘home’ but a combination of poverty, repression, ambition or simply the glitz of Western capitals makes defections to Europe and America irresistible to many Africans, a chance the just-ended Summer Olympics offered and which certainly wasn’t squandered.
The delegations of beaming athletes and officials shuffling by at the opening and closing ceremonies of major competitions such as the Olympics and Commonwealth Games are often heartwarming to watch. But behind this display of humanity’s diversity, there are athletes and sports aficionados with other ideas.
At the just-ended London Olympics for example, 204 countries sent proud representatives. However, at the end of the action fest, some athletes took the liberty of unilaterally extending their stay by just disappearing in the crowd.
More often than not this “phobia” of going home often develops when a competition is staged in the West, although even African capitals have in recent years offered the same opportunities. In London, a judoka and three coaches from the Democratic Republic of Congo went missing from the Olympic Village, just days after it was reported that a clutch of Cameroonian sportsmen had absconded from their delegation.
“What began as rumour has finally turned out to be true,” a flustered Team Cameroon mission head David Ojong told the Cameroonian sports ministry in a letter. “Seven Cameroonian athletes who participated at the 2012 London Olympic Games have disappeared from the Olympic Village.”
Putting up brave faces
It is expected that they will claim asylum, but unamused London authorities are putting on a brave face, saying the missing athletes have visas that are valid until November. The Cameroonians have since come out to claim that they were threatened by officials although the nature of the intimidation was not immediately clear. A guess of poor performance could be hazarded, given they had all been convincingly drubbed in their events.
But even before the games began, three Sudanese athletes in training disappeared in the English capital. British media in late July had also reported that a middle distance runner in his mid-20s of unknown nationality, but African, had sought asylum in Leeds.
Some countries are seemingly more vulnerable. Three years ago, 12 members of a 25-strong Eritrean football team vanished while in Kenya for a regional tournament, only to surface in Australia. It was just another disappearing act by athletes from the reclusive Horn of Africa nation.
Youth in Eritrea, which campaign groups say has one of the most repressive regimes in the world, face years of open-ended national service, and young athletes often take advantage of sporting outings to defect. The Eritrean government now has a law requiring athletes travelling out of the motherland to deposit $6,000 as some form of travel insurance.
In an interview with Voice of America radio before the London Games, an official with Eritrea’s mission in London said that his country would field 12 athletes in various discplines and that all would go home. “Because they are Eritreans and they love their homeland, so obviously I expect them to go back to their country, like anyone’s desire,” Michael Tesfai said rather unconvincingly, when asked how he could be so sure. It is yet unknown if the country’s contingent flew back intact.
The list of defectors is by no means monopolised by Eritrea. Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Tanzania, Gabon, Somalia, Algeria and Tunisia have over the last decade seen their athletes melt away into friendly immigrant communities in host countries. But, some disappearances are brazen: In 2002 some 53 Nigerians duped officials that they intended to take part in the 2002 British Open golf championship at Muirfield that July. Nigeria is not particularly renowned for its golfing prowess.
Others are daring, with an entire female basketball team from what was then known as Zaire dropping off the radar during the 1996 Atlanta Games. So why do African athletes do what is called a “runner”—disappearing into the host country while on international duty?
While the commonly-held view is that these are athletes fleeing repressive conditions back home, the more compelling reason is economic self-interest. “Cameroon’s political regime is flawed and President [Paul] Biya is heavy-handed, but it seems improbable that Cameroonian sportspeople could be prevented from signing contracts abroad if they wanted to, in fact, some African regimes seem to welcome the emigration of dissatisfied citizens and potential opposition voices,” Dr Marie Gibert, a lecturer in International Relations at the UK’s Nottingham Trent University said.
“Cameroon’s female football goalkeeper [Drusille Nguko] very clearly expressed what athletes hope: a better life and sports career. I think the political motivation probably often comes second, although a country’s political regime naturally has a deep impact on the population’s living conditions,” said Dr Gibert.
But coming from a totalitarian society generally does help bolster the case for asylum, Dr Gibert, who monitored the London Olympics, said, and this mainly informs the political reasons advanced by most athletes, even if a more attractive western way of life is their inspiration.