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Cameroon: Olympic Escape – Blame the System, Not the Athletes

This post is part of our special coverage of the London 2012 Olympics.

[All links are to French-language articles, unless otherwise stated.]

The London Olympics have been in full swing since July 27, 2012 and even if Cameroon has not won any medals, its athletes are still the subject of much conversation. This is because they excel in a ‘discipline’ which many have already described as the “Europathlon” (the defection of athletes in London during the Games).

The story of the escape of seven of the 33 athletes representing the Cameroonian delegation has become fodder for the international press. Even CNN and the New York Times [en] have reported on it. The European media, for the most part, point to an economic motive as the main factor behind these defections, which was also confirmed by the Cameroonian journalist Idriss Linge, on the website of the Journal du Cameroun:

Certains médias britanniques ont relevé le fait que ces défections pourraient trouver une justification dans la volonté de s’insérer en Europe, un environnement économiquement plus viable que leur pays. Citant une source camerounaise, l’agence Associated Press (AP) pour appuyer cette hypothèse a rappelé que le Cameroun selon les données du FMI (Fonds Monétaire International), est un pays où de nombreuses personnes vivent avec moins de 700 FCFA par jour.

Some British media noted that the defections could be justified by the desire of the athletes to establish themselves in Europe, an environment more economically viable than their home country. To support this hypothesis, citing a source in Cameroon, the Associated Press recalled that, according to the IMF (International Monetary Fund), Cameroon is a country where many people live on less than 700 Central African Francs per day.

And they are not the only ones to have thought of this explanation.

Abandoned stadium in Cameroon: photo by “10b travelling” on Flickr ( CC-License-BY-NC)

These defections simply highlight the malaise which affects all Cameroonian young people. Thus, according to the Cameroonian blogger Florian Nguimbis, these athletes are not to blame, but rather the entire system. He writes:

C’est assez triste néanmoins de voir que notre pays est devenu une prison dont tout le monde veut s’échapper à tout prix. Que peut-on reprocher à ces jeunes gens ? De n’avoir pas osé ? Ils se sont tout de même retrouvés aux JO, au prix d’une qualification. Ce sont des athlètes. Des gens qui ont pris leur destin en main et se sont spécialisés dans la pratique du sport de haut niveau. Mais voilà, le sein sensé les nourrir s’est révélé empoisonné. L’un d’eux Edingue est un nageur et chaque jour, je me demande comment ce jeune homme est parvenu à aller aux jeux. J’ai beau chercher dans mon esprit, je ne vois aucune piscine olympique dans ce pays. Idem pour le gros du contingent, les boxeurs. Je ne sais pas si vous connaissez le camp de l’unité, le temple de la boxe à Yaoundé. Une vieille bâtisse sale, croulante, obscure. Un antre glauque que quelques passionnés maintiennent à flot tant bien que mal en formant sans moyens ni matériel une jeunesse qui n’a que l’envie comme motivation. Mais malgré ça, deux des boxeurs étaient médaillés des derniers jeux africains, dont un en or !

It's rather sad, however, to see that our country has become a prison, from which everyone wants to escape at any cost. For what fault is it that we should blame these young people? That they have not tried hard enough? They are at the Olympics, after all, and they got there through qualification. They are athletes. People who have taken their destiny in their own hands, and who have specialized in the practice of high-performance sport. But now it seems, in a sense, that the sustenance on which they were raised proved poisonous. One of them, Edingue, is a swimmer, and every day I wonder how this young man was able to go to the Games. Try as I might to remember, I can't recall seeing any Olympic-size swimming pool in our country. The same can be said about the larger part of the athletic contingent, the boxers. I don't know if you have heard of Unity Camp, the boxing arena in Yaounde. An old, dirty building, dark and crumbling. A creepy lair, that some sports enthusiasts somehow keep afloat, without means or materials, thereby creating youths who have only envy as motivation. But despite that, two of those boxers were medalists at the last All-Africa Games, including one gold medal!

He added, as if to justify their defection:

Comment leur en vouloir ? Partir devient une nécessité, un devoir. Partir ou mourir. Partir ou voir son talent s’étioler jusqu’à ne devenir qu’un vague souvenir peuplant les soirées alcoolisées dans un bar pourri… ! Ce n’est pas la honte du Cameroun, ni celle de la majorité de notre peuple. Les responsables sont là. Tapis dans l’ombre mais pourtant connus. Ces vautours, ces vampires qui ponctionnent lentement mais sûrement le sang de la jeunesse, ses espoirs, ses rêves. Laissons les sportifs. Combien de jeunes gens profitent d’une bourse d’étude et ne reviennent jamais ? Combien de médecins s’en vont faire des stages et constatent que le bistouri est plus maniable en Europe qu’au Cameroun ?

How can we blame them? Leaving the country becomes a necessity, a duty. Leave, or die. Leave, or see one's talent wither, becoming only a distant memory, during drunken evenings in a shady bar! This is not the fault of Cameroon, nor that of the majority of our people. Those responsible are still there. They lurk in the shadows, but we know who they are. These vultures, these vampires, who slowly but surely drain the blood of youths, their hopes, their dreams. Leave these athletes alone. How many young people take advantage of a scholarship, and never return? How many doctors go to do internships in Europe, and find that the scalpel is more manageable there than in Cameroon?

Then who is to blame?

In this video recorded in Cameroon before the start of the Olympic Games, and uploaded by YouTube user , boxer Thomas Essomba, one of the seven missing athletes, spoke about the problems he experienced during training.

Whether it is damaging to the image of the nation or not, many Cameroonians support these athletes. These defections should not be perceived as a betrayal to the nation, which used taxpayer money to pay for their stay in London. They should rather be seen in a different light. These athletes should not be blamed. At least not any more than the system in Cameroon, which pushes young people to migrate to Europe at all costs, or which justifies their desire to stay there, regardless of the dangers they may face everyday.

The same story is told by Josué Jean-René Mambo Moussio II, in comments published on Facebook. He believes that these athletes do not tarnish the image of Cameroon. At least, no more than it already is:

Mais quelle image notre pays lui-même se donne aux yeux du monde??? A choisir de vivre en Europe sans papiers avec l'espoir des lendemains meilleurs ou de vivre en Afrique où il n'y a aucun espoir, mon choix est vite fait… il y a misère et misère … on n'a pas le droit de juger les gens qui essayent désespérément de se sortir d'un quotidien incertains quelque soient les moyens, c'est une question de vie ou de mort et moi je suis fier de ces gens qui ont pu avoir le choix et qui ont choisi une vie hypothétique qu'une mort certaine.

But what image does our country itself present to the eyes of the world ? To choose to live illegally in Europe, in the hope of a better tomorrow, or to live in Africa, where there is no hope? My choice is quickly made … there is poverty and misery … we have no right to judge people who are trying desperately to escape from a daily life of uncertain means. It's a matter of life or death, and I am proud of those people who have had the opportunity to make that choice, and who have chosen the possibility of life, versus a certain death.

However, this phenomenon is not new, according to an Internet user on a Cameroonian online forum, who cites an article published in French newspaper Le Figaro:

La disparition d'athlètes à l'occasion de compétitions internationales est une tradition de longue date. Pendant la guerre froide, ces défections étaient favorablement accueillies par les pays occidentaux. Aux JO de 1956 à Melbourne, 45 sportifs hongrois avaient profité de la compétition pour demander l'asile, avec le soutien des États-Unis. Mais les pays riches ne sont plus aussi hospitaliers et voient désormais d'un mauvais œil ce phénomène récurrent.

The disappearance of athletes at international competitions is a longstanding tradition. During the Cold War, these defections were welcomed by Western nations. At the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, 45 Hungarian athletes took advantage of the competition to seek asylum, with the support of the United States. But rich countries are no longer so hospitable, and now take a dim view of this recurring phenomenon.

However, the defections of African athletes at such events can sometimes also be for political reasons. And in that case, Cameroonians are not the only ones to have done so.

This post is part of our special coverage of the London 2012 Olympics

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