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Cuban Rowers at Toronto’s Pan Am Games Drop Out, Defect to US

The defection of four rowers comes within just days of two Cuban soccer players doing the same in Chicago during the Gold Cup.

by Rachel Browne
Jul 15 2015, 11:10pm

Des rameurs cubains célèbrent une médaille aux Jeux Panaméricains. Orlando Sotolongo, le troisième en partant de la gauche, a fait défection vers les États-Unis. Photo par Peter Power/The Canadian Press

Four Cuban rowers have defected from the Toronto Pan American Games for the US, their coach announced today, within days of two Cuban soccer players doing the same in Chicago during the Gold Cup.

In the case of the Pan Am defections, two rowers, Liosmel Ramos and Wilber Turro, dropped out just before their regatta last Saturday. Their teammates, Orlando Sotolongo and Manuel Suarez, competed earlier in the week, then backed out. Their coach told reporters he is still in contact with the men over Facebook, but their exact locations have not been made public.

The rowing venue for this year's games — which started on July 10 and end on the 26th — is located in St. Catharines, Ontario, a short distance from the US border.

Even though the Obama administration recently eased diplomatic relations with Cuba, many Cubans have started to worry the US might alter the rules that currently make it possible for Cubans to get US citizenship if they make it into the country — leading to a spike in the number of Cuban migrants trying to get there this year.

Related: We're Finally Friends With Cuba Again

Over the last week, two Cuban soccer players deserted their team after arriving in Chicago for the Gold Cup, a championship for teams from North and Central America.

They join dozens of other Cubans who have also defected to the US from sporting events over the years, many looking to flee persecution at home or get ahead in their careers.

In 2012, three players with the Cuban men's soccer team bolted to the US through the border in Niagara Falls, Ontario, just before a World Cup qualifying game in Toronto. They now play for a professional league in South Carolina.

The year before that, two women on the Cuban soccer team defected from Vancouver after a qualifying match for the Olympics. They crossed into the US to live with family members.

And when the 1999 Pan Am Games were hosted in Winnipeg, Manitoba, eight members of the Cuban team defected south of the border. There's even a case dating back to 1967, at the Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, when Cuban boxer Jorge Enrico Blanco fled to the US after he picked up a gold medal.

CEO for the Toronto Pan Am Games, Saad Rafi, told the Canadian Press on Wednesday, "this is something that is dealt with through our integrated security unit and if necessary, through the relevant national Olympic committee."

A spokesperson for the Toronto Pan Am Games told VICE News in an email, "If we become aware of an immigration matter affecting an athlete, we will work with our law enforcement and federal partners to ensure that they are aware as well."

When asked for comment, Canadian border officials referred VICE News to US Customs and Border Protection, which did not immediately respond.

According to the Globe and Mail, 461 Cuban athletes came to Toronto with the country's delegation to compete in the Pan Am Games this year. Cuba currently ranks third in the overall medal count with 44. 

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne