Top row, L-R: Thomas Essomba, Drusille Ngako, Serge Ambomo.
Bottom row, L-R: Yhyacinthe Mewoli Abdon, Christian Donfack Adjoufack, Paul Ekane Edingue, Blaise Yepmou Mendouo.
Seven of Cameroon’s 60 Olympic athletes have gone missing since their arrival in the U.K. — and while their intentions are unclear, the vanishing acts could a first step in asylum applications that will (soon) be made either by each of the AWOL athletes in Great Britain or greater Europe. Already in recent weeks one Sudanese Olympian and a middle-distance runner from an undisclosed African country have already entered claims for asylum; two other Sudanese competitors are also believed to be prepping their cases.
Why leave Cameroon? Though the country experienced rioting in 2008, it’s now widely considered socially and politically stable. Human rights groups allege, however, that political opponents of the ruling government, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, experience persecution, and that both corruption and crime are rife. Unemployment rates are close to 50 percent of the population, with a similar percentage living below the poverty line. Same-sex shenanigans are illegal.
The first of Cameroon’s team to go AWOL was Drusille Ngako, reserve goalkeeper for the women’s football team.
After missing out on a place in the Cameroonian team after pre-Games trials, she failed to join her team for the journey down from Scotland to Coventry (where the last friendly match was being played) a few days before opening ceremonies. Her whereabouts remain unknown, but on August 1st a Facebook page and profile in her name was updated with a status asking friends, “For or against my leaving the Olympic Village? And why?” Most of the responses were “for” her departure — though perhaps people just thought she meant a day out for some sightseeing. A more recent, cryptic post referred to “being the kick-off,” possibly in reference to other disappearances.
Next to fall off the Olympic grid: swimmer Paul Edingue, one of Cameroon’s two swimmers at the Games. He didn’t show up for his 50m freestyle heat, and officials later found his room in the Athletes’ Village empty. Following their respective eliminations from their events’ knock-out stages over the weekend, the country’s entire boxing team also disappeared. Those five guys are:
Four of the fighters haven’t been heard from since Friday. The fifth, Thomas Essomba, remained in the running in the light fly competition until Sunday — after which he too vanished. There’s no word on any either, though Christian Adjoufack’s Facebook page, updated today, places him at a business/in a place called Dubai in the South of France, accompanied by a cute little girl in flip-flops. This is probably a mistake, but hey, who doesn’t like the beach?
The only other info to be gleaned from Facebook is that Thomas Essomba has great taste in suits.
To avoid visa complications as the Games approached, British border control officials waived the standard immigration procedures for visiting athletes. All 2012 Olympians will be allowed to remain in Great Britain, with their families, until November — so there’s plenty of time for anyone tempted by bad weather, bad food, and The Only Way is Essex on TV ad nauseum to decide on making the move. Immigration officials say they expect asylum claims from “up to 2 percent” of the athletes competing. (There’s also the rest of Europe to pick from, now that they’re here, though Greece is probably not a good idea.)
In some places, the defections might be seen as flattering — especially this soon in the Cameroonians’ Olympic visit; they must have been really blown away! But in Great Britain, the word “asylum” sets off right-wing polemics. Stories like this are now easily appropriated by a rigidly xenophobic minority who feel that foreigners are descending on the U.K. to mooch housing and jobs. The Sun said the athletes’ disappearance was “feared” to be an asylum bid; see the comments on this piece to understand why fear would be involved. And consider the framing of London organizers’ statement on the missing athletes: “right now, they haven’t done anything wrong” (our emphasis). The Adventure of the Cameroon Seven is just beginning.