While Ryan Lochte is getting smashed and letting Swedish long jumpers try on his diamond grille, some Olympic athletes were quietly planning how to slip away from the Olympic village and request political asylum in London.
The Olympic flag-bearer for Eritrea, 18-year-old Weynay Ghebresilasie, revealed to The Guardian Wednesday that he claimed political asylum in the U.K. on the day of the Games’ closing ceremony to avoid returning home to the country he had just represented in the Olympics.
Over a dozen athletes and coaches from nations including Cameroon, Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Ivory Coast “disappeared” from the Olympic village before the closing ceremony and have not returned home. Of the twelve athletes from Eritrea, four have already claimed asylum in the U.K.
Most of the athletes who choose to claim asylum do not speak publicly about their decisions; Ghebresilasie explains that they fear retribution against their families.
There are reasons to be concerned about our families because the regime is unpredictable and is likely to treat my actions as a betrayal. If someone is being accused of illegally leaving the country it’s not unusual for a fine to be imposed on their family, or for their next of kin to be detained.”
Ghebresilasie, a steeplechaser, finished tenth in his first-round heat and did not advance. He called his trip to the Olympics “a dream come true” but blamed his disappointing performance on “mismanagement and politics.”
“The truth is that we are not treated as athletes. For example, there were times when we went to other countries to compete and I was denied medical treatment by the Eritrean officials in charge, some of them high ranking-army officers.”
In the Guardian piece, Ghebresilasie reveals that he sought asylum partially to avoid being conscripted indefinitely into Eritrea’s army, which the U.N. has described as sanctioning torture and forced labor.
The Associated Press reports that the history of athletes using international competitions to declare asylum in host countries dates back to the Cold War.
Donna Covey, the Refugee Council’s chief executive, told the AP that the U.K. would uphold its “proud tradition” of offering asylum:
“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.”
Athletes’ visas allow them to remain in the country legally until November.