Rommel Pacheco of Mexico competes in the men’s 3m springboard final during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Pan Am …
A few months ago, a Toronto immigration consultant group published a handy how-to guide for Pan Am athletes considering seeking asylum during the Games in Toronto. It wasn’t meant to encourage anyone, says Riley Haas of ImmiGroup. “We just wanted to make the information available,” he says of the March newsletter article, “How to Seek Asylum in Canada at the PanAm Games or Women’s World Cup.”
Already, two Cuban baseball players defected last week while in North Carolina to play U.S. college teams ahead of the Games. Major sporting events like the Pan Am Games are a political playground. At the 1967 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, Cuban rowing team trainer Nestor Carbonell and boxer Jorge Enrico Blanco both defected. Then 25, Carbonell said he loved the Cuban people and was proud of his homeland.
“I am also a man and I wish, like all men, no matter where they live, to be free,” he told reporters at the time. The next time the Pan Am Games came to Canada — again to Winnipeg — a total of 13 athletes defected, including pitcher Danys Baez, who went to the United States and signed a four-year US$14.5-million contract with the Cleveland Indians. Cuban officials were outraged and Fidel Castro declared Canada “enemy territory.” It didn’t help that the tabloid Winnipeg Sun had published a tongue-in-cheek guide for defectors and ran a contest for readers to guess how many team members from the island would seek sanctuary. The prize was a trip to Cuba.
It was at the 1987 Pan Am event in Indianapolis that the political games reached peak form. The anti-Castro Cuban American Foundation announced it would send representatives to Indianapolis to help Cuban athletes defect. Protesters dogged the Cuban team and at least two groups passed leaflets to Cuban delegation members, including the Freedom Now Committee offering $25,000 to any Cuban or Nicaraguan security of intelligence agents who defected. The president of the Cuban Olympic Committee at the time summed it up best: “To us, the Pan American Games are more important than the Olympics because they are a confrontation within our own area,” Manuel Ricardo Gonzalez Guerra told the New York Times.
“We like to compete against the United States,” he said, pointing out that there were 10 million Cubans versus more than 240 million Americans, “because when we win it shows, comparatively, that we are stronger.” But the Pan Am Games are not alone. From hockey to Olympic high jump, the Cold War has played out on many an international athletic stage. At the 1976 Montreal Summer Games four Romanians and one Russian sought asylum, though Russian diver Sergei Nemtsanov later returned to Moscow. There were reports of a romance. Russia insisted he was kidnapped and demanded his return, while Canada refused to do so against the 17-year-old’s will. In the end, reports say he voluntarily surrendered to Soviet officials in Montreal.
The 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria saw Nigerian wrestler Daniel Igali seek refugee status. He became a Canadian citizen in 1998 and went on to win a gold for Canada at the 2000 Sydney Games. And during a 2012 World Cup qualifying match in Toronto three Cuban soccer players crossed the border into the U.S. to seek asylum. Some of the more memorable athletic asylum seekers include tennis star Martina Navratilova, who defected from Soviet-block Czechoslovakia during the 1975 U.S. Open at age 18; NHL players Peter and Anton Stastny, who defected from Czechoslovakia during the 1980 European Cup; Russian hockey player Alexander Mogilny, who defected during the 1989 World Hockey Championships in Sweden. Janet Dench, spokeswoman for the Canadian Council for Refugees, says the number of claims by athletes is a “miniscule” percentage of refugee claims.
There is speculation that the thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba could increase the number of Cuban asylum seekers, who fear the window is closing. But the re-establishment of diplomatic ties won’t necessarily effect asylum claims, she says. “Claims are determined based on the facts of the individual case. The situation between the U.S. and Cuba is not necessarily relevant to an individual Cuban’s fear of persecution,” Dench says. Nancy Caron, spokeswoman for Citizenship and Immigration, says everyone coming to Toronto for the Games must go through a robust screening process. “[They] need to convince the immigration officer that they will leave Canada at the end of their authorized stay,” she says in an email.
Visa applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis. “Canada’s refugee policies are applied consistently regardless of any special event,” Caron says.