Seven Cuban athletes defect at 2023 Pan American Games in Santiago, including a bronze medal-winning hurdler

Field hockey team captain Yunia Milanés led five teammates in defection after a loss to Uruguay, marking a significant event in Cuban sports.

Shortly after finishing their competition on Saturday, six members of the Cuban women’s field hockey team defected from their delegation. The defecting players were identified as team captain Yunia Milanés, Jennifer Martínez, Yakira Guillén, Lismary González, Helec Carta, and Geidy Morales. The players defected following Cuba’s 3-0 loss to Uruguay in the 5th-place match.

In addition to the field hockey players, bronze medal-winning Olympic hurdler Yoandri Yoao Illas also defected from the Cuban team. The 21-year-old runner won bronze in the men’s 400m hurdles event on Friday with a personal best time of 49.74 seconds. This was Cuba’s first medal in the event since 1963.

According to media reports, the athletes defected from the team’s training facility and did not return to the Pan American Village with the rest of the Cuban delegation. Their whereabouts are currently unknown.

Defections Highlight Challenges Facing Cuban Sports

The defection of seven athletes from the Cuban national team continues a worrying trend for the island nation. Cuban sporting officials have long struggled to prevent their top athletes from defecting while competing abroad.

Just this year, some 60 Cuban athletes across various sports have abandoned their national teams during overseas competitions. In June, five players defected from Cuba’s national soccer team during the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament in the United States.

Economic turmoil and shortages of basic goods in Cuba have led to an unprecedented exodus from the communist-run country over the last two years. Top athletes have not been immune to these difficulties, with world champion boxers and track and field athletes defecting in 2022 and 2023.

Cuban sporting officials have labeled these defections as acts of betrayal. Athletes complain of lacking opportunities and resources to properly develop their talents while still living in Cuba.

Yoao Illas harvested a bronze medal for Cuba before running away (Photo by Alejandro Pagni/Santiago 2023 via Photosport)
Yoao Illas harvested a bronze medal for Cuba before running away (Photo by Alejandro Pagni/Santiago 2023 via Photosport)

Strong Showing for Cuba Despite Defections

The loss of seven athletes just before the closing ceremony has somewhat marred an otherwise successful Pan American Games for the Cuban delegation.

Cuba finished 5th in the final medal table, claiming a total of 69 medals (30 gold, 22 silver, 17 bronze). This placed them behind traditional regional powers, the United States, Brazil, Mexico, and Canada.

The defector Yoao Illas claimed Cuba’s first men’s 400m hurdles medal since 1963. Cuba also had standout performances in boxing, wrestling, and artistic gymnastics.

The team’s strong showing highlighted Cuba’s proud sporting tradition despite difficulties retaining top talent. However, the last-minute defections demonstrate that Cuban sports still face significant challenges.

What Happens Next?

In the immediate aftermath, Chilean authorities stated the defecting Cuban athletes remained in the country legally on their 90-day Pan American Games visas.

However, the defectors’ long-term intentions remain unknown. Some Cuban athletes have successfully claimed asylum and resumed their sporting careers in other countries. The United States has been a prime destination for Cuban baseball and boxing stars over the decades.

Others may choose to simply remain abroad and make new lives outside the restrictions of the Cuban system. Chile has become an increasingly attractive destination for Cuban emigrants in recent years due to its geographic proximity and relatively open policies.

Meanwhile, Cuban sports officials will again be faced with the difficult task of replacing their defective stars ahead of upcoming competitions like the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Despite producing many world-beating athletes, Cuba has continually lost top talent to defection during international matches.

For now, Chilean authorities are downplaying the diplomatic impact of Cuba’s latest sporting defections. But the dramatic escape of seven athletes on the eve of the Pan American Games closing ceremony has delivered yet another blow to the struggling Cuban sports system.