Top Five Sporting Defections
The news that nine athletes - seven Sierra Leoneans, a Tanzanian and a Bangladeshi - have disappeared from the Commonwealth Games heralds the latest in a grand sporting tradition: defecting, doing a runner, legging it. Now, we're presuming that the nine in question were not fleeing from inadequate facilities in the athletes village, nor merely adopting the local custom of going 'walkabout', but rather are properly on the lam. Defecting has changed since the good old days of the Cold War, when Soviet bloc prodigies were smuggled into the west as ideological foot soldiers in the struggle against their former homelands. Now its mainly third world athletes looking for an escape from poverty.
Here are some other great escapes...
1. Martina Navratilova
Not the most dramatic defection, but among the most high profile. After losing to Chris Evert in the semifinals of the 1975 U.S. Open, the 18-year-old Czech walked into the offices of the Immigration and Naturalizations Service in Manhattan. Within a month, she received her green card. She later wrote of her arrival in the U.S., "For the first time in my life I was able to see America without the filter of a Communist education, Communist propaganda. And it felt right. ... I honestly believe I was born to be an American. With all due respect to my homeland, things never really felt right until the day I got off the plane in Florida." Defected, became world tennis number 1, then came out as a lesbian. Tough lady.
2. Orlando Hernandez
'El Duque' is the highest profile baseball defectee from Cuba to the U.S.A., having fetched up in a small sailboat off the coast of the Bahamas in 1997 with his wife and seven other Cuban refugees. Hernandez had been expected to be the top pitcher for Cuba's 1996 Olympic team, but was banned from Cuban baseball following the defection in 1995 of his half-brother Livan Hernandez, the Castro government fearing another high-profile bunk. Regarded as one of the finest players to come from the baseball-crazy island, his story had a fitting Hollywood-style conclusion when he helped the Chicago White Sox to World Series glory last Autumn. Now plying his trade with the Florida Marlins.
3.Afghanistan Football Team
Soccer teams are devils for this sort of carry on, with various African nations having lost members of their first XI on overseas trips - including the disappearance of the entire Ethiopian football squad in Rome while en route to an African Nations Cup match. But imagine your country is playing its first international fixture in 25 years, having been freed from mediaeval tyranny by kindly western folk, and most of your team does a runner - as nine Afghani players did in 2004. Worse than Saipan that. Four were later arrested but five claimed asylum in other countries after having bailed it from a disco in Verona. Would never have happeded under the Taliban.
The original 'perfect 10' - the score she achieved a record seven times at the Montreal Olympics of 1976 - demonstrated unusually poor timing when she defected from Romania in 1989 - a matter of months before the collapse of the Ceaucescu Communist regime. Inevitably ended up in the U.S. Like all the best defectees to the States she has become a poster child for the American way, marrying fellow Olympic champion Bart Conner and leading an incredibly full life, performing exhibitions, signing commercial endorsements for major companies, partaking in charity events, and is a partner with her husband in a gymnastics equipment company.
Defecting from a repressive Communist regime? Escaping third world poverty and risking your life to be smuggled into the west? That's nothing. Peter Nicol has performed the most treasonous defection of them all: the squash player changed his nationality from Scottish to English! Nicol won Commonwealth Games gold this week for England after achieving the same feat in Scottish colours in 1998, having subsequently switched nationalities after a funding row.
As George Mieras of Scottish squash commented dolefully, "Most of us who have never dreamt of having the chance would have died rather than changed." Its hard to imagine many glasses being raised in Scotland at Nicol's success - the dirty, traitorous scoundrel.