Pan Am legal games: what is a defection?

A Winnipeg store welcomes Cuban defectors during the 1999 Pan Am games. (Reuters)

Around 40 countries and more than 1,600 athletes are coming together for the Pan Am games, but it doesn’t mean it’s all one big happy family. In fact, a few athletes have decided to disown their motherland.

Four Cuban rowers have apparently defected, leaving their team and heading for the U.S. They follow two Cuban baseballers who defected last week during a pre-Pan Am tournament in North Carolina.

In fact, Pan Am defections are so predictable that one Toronto immigration law firm posted a how-to guide for aspiring defectors back in March. In the 2007 Rio games, the Cuban delegation went home early to prevent athletes from skipping out.

Defection is pretty common in Cold War spy fiction, but what does it really mean?

A defector is similar to a refugee, but the difference is that they’re coming from a country like Cuba or North Korea, which generally doesn’t allow citizens to travel abroad. Typically, a defector takes advantage of a foreign trip, like the Pan Am Games or Olympics and uses the opportunity to defect to the host country.

Canada still welcomes many refugees, but defectors are rare, mostly because there are few countries that restrict travel. If an aspiring defector makes it to Canada, they are essentially seeking asylum.

They have to notify a border services or immigration officer and file a written claim. If that’s accepted, the defector attends a hearing to make their case, which would explain why they’re leaving their home country and should be allowed to remain here.

Although that doesn’t mean a defector will stay here. Of the eight Cubans who defected during the 1999 Winnipeg Pan Am Games, most ended up in the U.S., including Danys Baez, who later became a Major League Baseball pitcher. The embarrassing exodus actually led Fidel Castro to denounce Canada as a “perennial criminal and frustrated enemy of the Revolution” who “harasses our delegation and urges defections.”

Cuban Jorge Enrico Blanco jumped ship during the 1967 Winnipeg games — after winning a gold medal — but later moved to Texas.

Canada’s not just popular for Pan Am defections though. Before most of those escapades, Toronto was the site of a sensational Cold War saga when Russian ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov defected here in June 1974 (before moving to the U.S., naturally).

And before any of those, Canada hosted Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, whose defection helped expose spy rings operating out of the Russian embassy in Ottawa.

So far, Cuban officials have stayed mum on the apparent defections, but the fallout could still be coming. And there are still 10 days left in the games.

Who knows, Kanye West could try to defect during the closing ceremonies. Although we probably wouldn’t take him.



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