A Brief History of Olympic Defectors

Buda Mendes // Getty Images
Buda Mendes // Getty Images

For some athletes, the Olympics aren’t just a competition: they’re a chance to escape oppression. Earlier this week, seven of Cameroon’s athletes disappeared from London’s Olympic Village. The week before, three runners from Sudan’s Olympic training squad filed for asylum in Britain. Here’s a look at some other Olympic defections.

1948 Summer Olympics: London

Marie Provaznikova, a Czech who was President of the International Gymnastics Federation, was the first person to defect from the Olympics. Czechoslovakia had recently become a satellite of the Soviet Union, and Provaznikova knew her country wouldn’t be the same. She darted to the United States, where she later taught gymnastics. Provaznikova lived in the U.S. until 1991, dying at age 101.

1956 Summer Olympics: Melbourne

In 1956, Hungary flew 83 athletes to Melbourne, Australia. While their plane took off, the streets of Budapest cracked with the sound of gunfire: Hungarians were revolting against Soviet rule. By the time the Games were over, the Soviets had crushed the opposition. When the team heard the news, only 38 athletes decided to ride the plane back home. Most of the other athletes defected to America and settled in California.

1964 Winter Olympics: Innsbruck, Austria

While her team wined and dined, Ute Gaehler, an alternate for East Germany’s toboggan team, ran for the border. One night, as her team was celebrating at a reception, Gaehler slipped out of her living quarters and fled for West Germany. She made it safely. The AP reports that 13 fans from “Eastern European Communist countries” also escaped.

1964 Summer Olympics: Tokyo

Two Hungarian athletes—a canoeist and a marksman—defected in 1964 and later found sanctuary in the United States. Both fled because Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, had been ousted from office. Khrushchev was one of the USSR’s least repressive rulers, and the Hungarians feared that life back home would change for the worse.

1968 Summer Olympics: Mexico City

1968 was the first time summer athletes had to take “sex verification tests.” The controversial tests stirred up some noise, helping Cuban tennis player Juan Campos quietly defect to Mexico amid the ruckus.

1972 Summer Olympics: Munich

According to the Associated Press, 117 people defected at the Munich games. However, there is little information on who they were, where they were from, and where they went.

1976 Summer Olympics: Montreal

In 1976, four Romanians and one Russian sought refuge in Canada. One of the defectors was Sergei Nemtsanov, a 17-year-old Russian diver. The head of the Soviet Olympic squad claimed that “unidentified terrorists” had kidnapped Nemtsanov and brainwashed him to “embrace freedom.” In reality, Nemtsanov had fallen in love with a female diver from Cincinnati and was hiding with a family in Ontario. He eventually had to revoke his defection, and he left brokenhearted.

1980 Summer Olympics: Moscow

The road to Moscow was paved with deserters, primarily because the USSR had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Many Afghani athletes feared going to Moscow and jumped ship to avoid it. A month before the games, seven members of the basketball team fled to Pakistan. A day before the Olympic flight, seven wrestlers also left for Pakistan. Five more players defected during the games, some fleeing to America, others to West Germany.

1984 Summer Olympics: Los Angeles

In 1984, a San Diego newspaper hired Romanian sportswriter Vladimir Moraru as a translator. When the games finished, Moraru decided that he liked the San Diego sun. The Romanian writer asked for, and received, political asylum.

1996 Summer Olympics: Atlanta

When Iraqi weightlifter Raid Ahmed went to Atlanta, he carried his country’s flag at the opening ceremony. A week later, he rejected that same flag and defected to the U.S. Ahmed vocally opposed Saddam Hussein’s regime, and he feared execution. Afghanistan’s flag bearer, boxer Jawid Aman Mukhamad, had the same problem: Afghan officials accused him of being a communist (Mukhamad had trained in Russia). Scared for his life, he acquired refugee status in Canada.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

8 Surprising Facts About Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris.
Chuck Norris.
Jason Merritt, Getty Images

For decades, martial artist and actor Carlos Ray Norris Jr. has been kicking his way into the hearts of action film fans. In addition to his competitive karate career, Norris has starred in a string of successful movies as well as the long-running CBS drama Walker, Texas Ranger. With Norris having reached the milestone age of 80 years old back in March 2020, we’re taking a look at some of the more interesting facts about his life and career.

1. Chuck Norris is a military veteran.

Chuck Norris in Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)
Chuck Norris stars in Lone Wolf McQuade (1983).
MGM Home Entertainment

Born on March 10, 1940 in Ryan, Oklahoma, Norris was the oldest of three boys and a self-described “shy” child. After a move to California, Norris attended North Torrance High School. After graduating, he joined the U.S. Air Force, where he became a member of the military police in the hopes of pursuing a career in law enforcement. It was in the service, while being stationed at Osan Air Base in South Korea, that Norris first discovered the martial arts. When he once found himself unable to control a rowdy drunk in a bar while on patrol duty, Norris realized he needed combat skills. He studied Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do before returning to California. When he was discharged from the Air Force in 1962, Norris began teaching the skills he had acquired to students.

2. Steve McQueen got Chuck Norris into acting.

Norris became a world champion in karate contests, which lent credence to his abilities as a martial arts instructor. He taught several celebrities the finer points of self-defense, including the Osmonds, Priscilla Presley, and Steve McQueen. Norris even trained Price Is Right host Bob Barker. But not all his schools were doing well, and after retiring from competition in 1974, Norris was looking for other opportunities. McQueen suggested that Norris try his hand at acting. McQueen was right—eventually. It took several years and nine films, but Norris had a breakthrough with 1982’s Lone Wolf McQuade.

3. Chuck Norris needed to obey a producer’s request in order to face off against Bruce Lee.

While Norris didn’t become a household name until the 1980s, his turn as a villain in 1972’s Return of the Dragon (also known as Way of the Dragon) opposite Bruce Lee wound up being a seminal meeting of two onscreen martial arts legends. When Lee was looking for an adversary for the climactic fight, he called Norris, whom he knew and was friends with. But the film’s producer insisted that Norris gain 20 pounds so that he would appear to be much larger than Lee on camera. “That’s why I don’t do jump kicks [in the movie],” Norris told Empire in 2007. “I couldn’t get off the ground!”

4. Chuck Norris founded his own martial arts system.

Taking the knowledge he had acquired over many years of training in Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do, Norris developed his own unique martial arts system and philosophy that he eventually dubbed Chun Kuk Do. In addition to combat techniques, the system encourages students to develop themselves to their maximum potential and look for the good in other people. It was renamed the Chuck Norris System in 2015.

5. Chuck Norris once marketed Chuck Norris Action Jeans.

Thanks to his fame in the martial arts world, Norris was sought after to endorse athletic products. In 1982, martial arts equipment company Century recruited Norris to be a spokesperson for their Karate Jeans, which featured flexible fabric sewn into the crotch that would presumably allow the wearer to deliver a bone-crunching kick while looking fashionable. Eventually renamed Action Jeans, Norris promoted them for years.

6. Chuck Norris had his own cartoon series.

At the height of his popularity in the 1980s, Norris teamed with animation company Ruby-Spears for an animated series, Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos. The show featured Norris and a team of martial artists fighting villains like Superninja and The Claw. Although 65 shows were planned, just a few aired. “We only did six of them, and then a woman at CBS said, ‘Those are too violent,’” Norris told MTV News in 2009.

7. Chuck Norris is a real Texas Ranger.

For eight seasons, Norris pummeled bad guys as the star of the 1990s CBS television series Walker, Texas Ranger, which became the first primetime show shot on location in Texas at Norris’s insistence. In 2010, Norris was named an honorary member of the Texas Rangers by state governor Rick Perry in acknowledgment of Norris’s work in raising awareness for the elite unit and for his work helping underprivileged youths via martial arts programs. Norris’s brother, Aaron Norris, who was an executive producer on the show, also received the designation.

8. Chuck Norris’s role in Dodgeball was a surprise to Chuck Norris.

Norris is generally good-humored about his persona and is often willing to poke fun at himself. But when he was asked to do a cameo in the 2004 comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, he passed because he didn’t feel like driving three hours to the movie’s set in Long Beach, California. When star Ben Stiller called to ask personally, Norris agreed, but didn’t read the script. He simply shot his scene where he offers a thumbs-up to the dodgeball competitors.

When Norris saw the movie in theaters, he was surprised at the context. “But in the end, when Ben’s a big fatty and watching TV, the last line of the whole movie is, ‘F***in’ Chuck Norris!,'” Norris told Empire in 2007. “My mouth fell open to here… I said, ‘Holy mackerel!’ That was a shock, Ben didn’t tell me about that!”