The Cameroonian boxer who defected in London Olympics 2012

9 months ago 3410

When boxer Thomas Essomba walked out of the London Olympic Village with his suitcases in 2012, he left behind his life in Cameroon to start from scratch in a country he knew next to nothing about.

Essomba, who was captain of his country's boxing team, disappeared with four other boxers during the Games nine years ago.

Of the 37 athletes Cameroon sent to London, seven - including a swimmer and a female soccer player - never went home after completing their events.

In the decade that followed, Essomba said he sometimes struggled to reconcile his yearning for his family in Cameroon and his dream of becoming a successful boxer in the U.K.

"It was very difficult to decide," the 33-year-old told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday at his gym in Sheffield in the north of England.

The stories of young athletes who defect during the Olympics often capture the world's imagination.

This week, Belarusian sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya left the Tokyo Games and sought refuge in Poland, saying team officials tried to force her to fly home early after she criticized them.

The 24-year-old runner said her move was not premeditated, and it's not clear what's next for her.

Hundreds of athletes have sought asylum at global sporting events, especially during the Cold War, to flee authoritarian rule at home or to seek a better life in the West.

As many as 117 athletes defected at the Munich Olympics in 1972, according to reports at the time, and Cuban athlete defections to the U.S. have been common.

At the London Olympics in 2012, several other athletes from other African teams also disappeared and reportedly sought asylum.

Essomba maintained he had a good life back home and did not plan to escape before arriving in London.

The reasons behind his decision weren't entirely clear: the boxer said he ran into trouble with Cameroonian government sports officials, but did not elaborate.

Some on his team reportedly said at the time that they were poorly treated.

"The only thing I was scared of was going back and stopping doing boxing, because boxing is all my life," Essomba said. "They don't like challenge, because I've tried to challenge them and my life became dangerous."

Cameroon, a predominantly French-speaking nation of 26 million in Central Africa, has a high poverty rate and stark inequality between rural and urban areas.

President Paul Biya has been in power since 1982, and critics accuse him of political oppression and persecuting his adversaries.

Essomba said he still missed his home country, not least because "my grandparents, my mom, my children" remained there.

Once out of the Olympic Village the athletes took a bus to south London, found a place to live and stayed there for weeks while a lawyer helped them with the paperwork they needed to apply for asylum with the British government.

At the time, they all had six-month visas allowing them to stay in the U.K., Essomba himself spoke next to no English.

"I didn't know anything about the U.K. Even applying for asylum, I didn't know that I was supposed to apply for asylum," Essomba said.

His application was granted within a year, and he became a British citizen soon after.

Essomba has had moments of regret when things were not going so well, and he says he misses his family and homeland terribly. But he's adapted to life in England.

He found a new girlfriend and new friends. He stays in touch daily with his family on social media, and has returned secretly to his homeland after obtaining his British citizenship.

Professionally, Essomba held the Commonwealth flyweight champion title from 2015 to 2017. He said he's fighting to "write my name" by representing the U.K., before he retires and goes into coaching.

"I haven't reached my goal yet. My goal is to have a British title. This is my hope," the boxer added. "So that's why I keep fighting. I believe I will do it."

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