In the middle of the weightlifting competition at the Commonwealth Games in Australia last month, Rwanda's coach, Jean Paul Nsengiyumva, said he had to use the bathroom. He never came back.
He wasn't the only one: Ernest Jombla and Yusif Mansaray, men's squash players from Sierra Leone, didn't show up to their doubles match on April 12; five boxers and three weightlifters from Cameroon — one-third of the country's delegation to Australia — disappeared in three overnight waves; and at least two Ugandan athletes also vanished.
Australian officials did not see the string of disappearances as a mystery. Peter Dutton, Australia's minister of home affairs, assumed the athletes and coaches had run away, seeing the Commonwealth Games as an opportunity to resettle abroad. "If they don’t want to be held in detention or locked up at the local watch house, they’d better jump on a plane before the 15th [of May]," Dutton told Australia's Macquarie Radio, referencing the expiry date on the athletes' visas.
Sure enough, the Australian Border Force confirmed Wednesday that some foreign athletes had stayed beyond the time allotted on their visas and applied to stay in the country longer.
Australian migration groups say they are seeing coaches, athletes and even foreign journalists coming to them for help. "More than 40 people, including Commonwealth Games athletes, journalists and others, have come in over the last 10 days looking for visas they can apply for and how they can stay in Australia," Jim MacAnally, an office administrator for Ready Migration, told CNN. Australia's Daily Telegraph reported that another group, Refugee Advice and Casework Service, was also consulting with athletes.
“It happens at every Games. It’s not a surprise,” Peter Beattie, the chairman of the games' organizing committee, told the Telegraph. “I don’t want to be too blase, but I don’t get too excited about this, because I know there is a system to deal with it.”
There is a lengthy history of athletes using international sporting events as an opportunity to leave their home countries permanently. During the 2006 Commonwealth Games, also in Australia, some 40 athletes and officials overstayed their visas or ended up applying for asylum. In 2012, a number of athletes disappeared from the Olympic Games in London. On multiple occasions, soccer players from Eritrea have used trips abroad as an opportunity to defect from the isolated state, including a 2015 mass defection by members of the national soccer team who traveled to Botswana for a World Cup qualifying match.
Permission to stay in Australia will depend on whether individuals can make a case for why they deserve asylum or a special-skills visa. Those who do not qualify for asylum — economic migrants, for example — could end up staying in Australia without legal permission.
And athletes who are not granted permission to stay in Australia may not be warmly welcomed home.
"They just left in the night," said Simon Molombe, a press attache for Cameroon's team. "When we got up in the morning, they were not there. It’s very, very disappointing and very, very embarrassing for Cameroon."