Runaway athletes: Defection past and present

Orlando Ortega (L) and Aries Merritt  during the World Athletics Championship in Moscow. Source: AP

Orlando Ortega (L) and Aries Merritt during the World Athletics Championship in Moscow. Source: AP

The defection of Cuban runner Orlando Ortega from the national squad at the World Athletics Championships in Moscow made quite a stir. Similar incidents involving Soviet athletes occurred in the past.

Orlando Ortega of Cuba, a finalist in the 110-meter hurdles at the London Olympics, defected from the Cuban team during the World Athletics Championship in Moscow. Ortega, 22, made a poor showing, dropping out after the preliminary heats and, apparently, afraid of being punished at home.

The Athletics Federation of Cuba condemned the defector. “Such actions have nothing to do with the principles that inspire us, and such athletes will always be condemned by those who consider loyalty an irreplaceable component of the truly popular sport,” said a statement by the federation that was published by ITAR-TASS news agency.

This is not the first time a Cuban athlete has suddenly left his country’s camp at international tournaments. In March 2008, seven soccer players, having competed in the qualifying tournament in the U.S. prior to the Beijing Olympics, defected en masse.

Two of them — defender Yendry Diaz and midfielder Eder Rolan — failed to show up for the starting match. The others fled after the match. All seven were soon accused of betraying their country: The Cuban team played all its remaining matches at reduced strength and without a bench.

All in all, at least 80 athletes have defected from Cuba since 1991. The biggest number of defections occurred at the 1999 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, from which 13 Cuban athletes failed to return home.

As for Russia, the most high-profile defections among athletes were in hockey, chess and figure skating.

For instance, the famous CSKA and Soviet national team hockey player Sergei Fyodorov slipped away from the Soviet camp in 1990. Back home, however, his flight was surprisingly met with sympathy. He later played for the Soviet team and was more than once called to play for the Russian national team.

The attitude toward Alexander Mogilny, who belonged to the same club as Fyodorov and left the team a year earlier following the World Championships in Stockholm, was very different.

Mogilny soon asked for political asylum in the U.S. and received a work permit, while, in the Soviet Union, he was charged with desertion. Just a couple of years later, Russian players began to migrate to the NHL en masse, but Mogilny was afraid to return to Russia for many years.

In 1989, chess player Gata Kamsky, who later contended for the World Chess Championship, stayed in the United States. Another famous grandmaster, Viktor Korchnoi, defected much earlier, in 1976. Two years later, he faced Anatoly Karpov in the World Chess Championship, playing for Switzerland. He made another attempt in 1981, but he lost both times.

The most high-profile Soviet defection is the story of the two-time Olympic pair-skating champions, Ludmilla Belousova and Oleg Protopopov. The world and Soviet champions remained in Switzerland where they were on a tour, dealing a heavy blow to the image of Soviet sports with their defection. 

First published in Russian in

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