Belarus Sprinter Is Latest in a Long Line of Olympic Defectors

Dozens of Hungarians defected in 1956 after Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 4, 2021 7:10 PM CDT
Political Dissent Has a Long History at the Olympics
In this photo taken from video, Belarus Olympic sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya speaks during a Zoom interview with the AP in Japan, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021.   (AP Photo/Daniel Kozin, File)

Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya is now officially a political exile—and the latest in a long line of Olympic defectors, many of them from authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe. Unlike many of her predecessors, Tsimanouskaya didn't travel to the Olympics planning to defect, the AP reports. The 24-year-old, who said she feared retribution from the regime of Alexander Lukashenko after criticizing team officials, was granted a humanitarian visa for Poland. Some earlier defections:

  • London, 1948. Marie Provaznikova, a gymnastics coach from Czechoslovakia, became the first defector in the modern era at the 1948 Games, Forbes reports. Then 57, she said she didn't want to return to her homeland because of the Communist takeover earlier that year. She spent most of the rest of her life in the US and died at 100 in upstate New York in 1991, having lived to witness the end of one-party rule in the "Velvet Revolution" two years earlier.

  • Melbourne, 1956. The 1956 Games took place just weeks after Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest and around half of Hungary's 100-member Olympic delegation decided not to return. The US agreed to accept 35 of them, the AP reports. That Olympics saw the notoriously violent "Blood in the Water" water polo game, in which Hungary beat the Soviet Union 4-0.
  • Munich, 1972. By the 1970s, "defection in the Olympics during the Cold War was almost an unrecognized medal event," historian Barbara Keys at Durham University tells the Washington Post. According to Deutsche Welle, some 117 athletes defected during the 1972 Games in what was then West Germany.
  • Atlanta, 1996. The Eastern Bloc nations boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics—and by the time the Games returned to the US in 1996, most of Europe's Communist regimes had fallen. Iraqi weighlifter Raed Ahmed, his nation's flag bearer during the opening ceremony, defected in Atlanta to escape Saddam Hussein's regime, the AP reports. Cuban pitcher Rolanda Arrojo was called a "Judas" by Fidel Castro after he defected.
  • Athens, 2004. Three out of the five gold medalist boxers in the Cuban delegations defected at the 2004 Games in Greece—and a fourth was kicked off the team after he tried to flee, per the Post.
  • London, 2012. At least 15 athletes from African countries including Cameroon, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan disappeared during the 2012 Games, reports Quartz. Several of them later tried to claim asylum in Britain.
(Tsimanouskaya changed her flight plans at the last minute due to security concerns.)

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