Opinions & Features July 19, 2021 at 07:30 am

Ugandan Olympic athlete ‘runs away’ – This is why Africa should expect more athletes to follow

Nii Ntreh July 19, 2021 at 07:30 am

July 19, 2021 at 07:30 am | Opinions & Features

Julius Ssekitoleko competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. (GETTY IMAGES)

A 20-year-old Ugandan weightlifter who has gone missing in Tokyo before the Olympic Games wrote a message stating that life in his home country was too harsh for him and that he wanted to work in Japan.

Julius Ssekitoleko stated in the message that he did not want to return to Uganda and requested that his possessions be sent back to his wife. After failing to qualify for the Games after arriving in Japan, the weightlifter was scheduled to travel back to Uganda on July 20.

The 2020 Summer Olympic Games will be held between July 23 and August 8, while the Paralympic Games will be held between August 24 and September 5. The 2020 Olympics and Paralympics have been postponed from last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There will be 33 sports represented in the Olympics, with 339 events taking place in 42 locations. There will be 22 sports represented in the Paralympics, with 539 events taking place in 21 venues.

This isn’t the first time an athlete has used a major international athletic event to find new opportunities. International athletic events have a long history of athletes utilizing them as a way to temporarily leave their native nations. Since the second world war, athletes and coaches have stayed behind at nearly every Olympic Games. Marie Provaznikova, the head of Czechoslovakian women’s gymnastics, was the first person to defect at an Olympic Games in 1948 in London, refusing to return home because “there is no freedom of speech, press, or assembly.” During the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, over half of Hungary’s 100-strong delegation defected.

In 2006, approximately 40 athletes and officials overstayed their visas or applied for refuge in Australia during the Commonwealth Games. 21 athletes and coaches defected at the 2012 Olympics in London. Five boxers, a swimmer, and a footballer from Cameroon were among the participants. In the same time span, over 80 people applied for asylum.

The majority of defections in Africa have been motivated by a desire for better economic prospects. While many defections have reflected South-North migration (migration between developed and developing nations), some have also reflected South-South migration (migration between developing countries). For example, after 15 Eritrean football players and their team doctor absconded at the end of a competition in 2013, Uganda awarded refuge to them. In 2015, eleven Eritrean football players refused to return home after participating in a World Cup qualifying match in Botswana.

In 2018, over 200 African athletes and officials who attended the Commonwealth Games in Australia also applied for asylum.

Defections have occurred at various times throughout games, including at the start (as in the instance of Ssekitoleko), in the middle (as in the case of Jean Paul Nsengiyumva), and at the conclusion (as in the case of the Eritrean football team). Jean Paul Nsengiyumva’s tale is very fascinating. While competing in the Commonwealth Games in Australia, Rwanda’s weightlifting coach said that he needed to use the restroom. He never returned.

Permission to remain in the host nations has traditionally been based on individuals’ arguments for why they should be granted asylum or a special-skills visa. Those who do not qualify for asylum, such as economic migrants, wind up living in these countries illegally, but this is a risk that these athletes are ready to accept. While the list of deflections isn’t exhaustive, there is a consistent tendency among African athletes: they want to improve their financial prospects.

Africa has a large young population with not much in the way of economic prospects. 

By 2050, one in every four people on earth will be African, as the continent’s population doubles, accounting for more than a quarter of the world population increase. These young people are running out of patience and time and seek every other avenue to have a chance at a better life. International sporting events can’t come soon enough. 

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