Since the Cold War, athletes worldwide have been using sports to defect to countries other than their birth countries. During the time of the Cold War, a number of Europeans would use international sporting events to escape the conditions in their home countries. In the aftermath of the London 2012 Olympic Games, there have been several reports of “African” Athletes disappearing from the Olympic Village. Many of the stories are sensational or stereotypical, laced with the familiar narrative of ‘Africans’, trying to ‘escape’ poverty, war, and disease. I have found some of this reporting to be sensational and somewhat removed from the contemporary African experience.
In the cases where journalists referred to similar European defections, authors often cited political ideology over economic as the reason for defection. In contrast, the authors writing about African defections seem to be overwhelmingly attributing the defections to poor economic situations. However, we need to look beyond economic factors in making these claims. In the past, as famously enshrined by the Economist, Africa was often depicted as an economically ‘hopeless’ continent. This is no longer the case. Africa’s economies are on the rise and many more Africans have been lifted out of poverty than ever before. The new economic projections place seven out of the ten fastest growing economies in the world in Africa. Although there are certainly economic woes in African countries, economics is not the only reason these athletes leave. In fact in 2009, an entire Eritrean soccer team ‘vanished’ during a soccer tournament in Kenya. Therefore, the goal is not necessarily to leave the continent for better economic conditions in the Global North.
Additionaly, if economic concerns were the over arching reason for athelte’s decisions to defect, than one should expect defections to be srpead out evenly across the continent. The 12 defectors came from countries like Cameroon, Ivory Coast, and Guinea, and Congo. The majority of these missing atheletes came from Cameroon. Cameroon is the 5th largest producer of cocoa in the world and has oil reserves. Therefore we need to examine what is going on in Cameroon as an independent nation that has lead to seven of its atheletes leaving. Most likely, the economic prosperty from Cameroons natural resources is not trickling down to its atheltes. In other words, political will by Cameroonian authorities to support sports is key. It is not so much the poverty in these nations that drives them away, rather the economic system. Many athletes are not adequately supported by their government in their profession. The infrastructure, training and even moral support is not always readily available to the athletes. Likewise, some of the other defecting atheltes notably came from oil-rich Guniea and the cocoa-rich Ivory Coast (incidentally also one of the financial capitals of Africa). Except for the Coltrane-rich Congo, arguably, economic conditions in these countries are no worse than in other African countries.
Many of the reports also unfairly refer to the monolithic term “African”, thereby branding the entire continent as one country whose inhabitants are all trying to escape poverty. Less than 5 countries out of a total of 54 African nations have been affected by these defections, yet the whole continent has been branded. When one delves deeper in to the countries of origin, one can begin to make a better analysis of this pattern of defection.
Out of the 60 athletes that Cameroon brought to the Olympic games, five boxers, one swimmer and one footballer were reported missing. Numerically, this is not indicative of the type of reported desperation by African athletes to leave their home countries. The fact that Fifty-three Cameroonian athletes planned on returning home is also reflects 53 Cameroonian athletes that decided to go home. In a larger context, the same argument can be made for the total number of African atheletes that came to the games versus the numebr of total African atheletes that decided to go home.
Many reports have also exaggerated the number of defecting athletes. So far, the official count of missing athletes is twelve, yet there are reports of ‘dozens’ of ‘Africans’ missing. Providing a grossly exaggerated number is disingenuous to the continent as it is simply not true.
Most articles concentrate on the push factors that lead to defection but fail to cite the pull factors. African athletes being wooed by countries in the Global North in order to contribute to their own medal counts. Much like the brain-drain, Africans are being aggressively wooed for their bodies, in what I refer to as an ‘Olympic body-drain’. They are being offered citizenship, training facilities, and contracts that they find beneficial. African athletes should therefore not only be viewed as running away from economic problems back home but rather, running towards economic prosperity.
Much of the reporting about the athletes provides little insight about the contemporary economic conditions in Africa or non-economic conditions that contribute to the defections. Both the push and pull factors need to be discussed. Lumping all African countries together provides for an unbalanced analysis too since we are dealing with individual nations. The journalistic narrative of the defecting African atheletes at this years games has been problematic at many levels. As an
African I hope to see more journalists stray away from this long travelled path.