Tokyo 2021: The complete story of Julius Ssekitoleko
One of the most prominent highlights of the Tokyo 2021 Olympics that received the most media coverage was the disappearance of 20-year-old Ugandan weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko. On July 16, the athlete was reported missing when he did not show up for his daily coronavirus testing. A note was left in his room at the pre-Olympics camp in Izumisano, Osaka stating that he has left to find work and that his belongings should be handed over to his wife. After being on the run for four days, it was found that he had purchased a train ticket to Nagoya Prefecture, 200 km away.
This is a fairly common issue that all major international sporting events face. In the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games, 82 athletes and coaches applied for asylum in the UK and 21 athletes have completely disappeared. One of the more surprising disappearances includes an entire Senegal football team escaping from their hotel room in France. Following incidents as such, the respective embassies of the Olympics host countries tightened their visa screening process for athletes.
In regards to Ssekitoleko’s situation, the Ugandan Weightlifting Federation President Salim Musoke expressed his concerns regarding how this incident reflects poorly on Uganda and that the athlete should no longer be allowed to compete in the sport. The athlete was found in Mie Prefecture and had not taken part in any illegal activity. Ssekitoleko showed no hostility or resistance to the Japanese police and was direct with the questioning. On July 23, Ssekitoleko was deported from Japan accompanied by a Japanese official on the plane.
Upon his arrival in Uganda, he was arrested at the Entebbe Airport and was taken to the Jinja Road Police Station, and was kept there for three days. Awaiting at the airport was his mother and pregnant wife. His mother was extremely upset about his arrest and claimed that Ssekitoleko is just a young boy who was upset about not qualifying for the Olympics and that he had no prior intentions to illegally immigrate.
Turns out, Ssekitoleko’s family was facing a tough financial situation as they were near eviction from the home they rented. Four months of rent totaling up to approximately 170 USD had not been paid. Uganda’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs Henry Okello Oryem said that they have apologized to the Japanese Government and that “it was unacceptable conduct and treachery.” While he was detained Ugandan Government officials did not clarify the action that will be taken against the athlete.
“We have a code of conduct and that is what we will use to help him be disciplined, to help him be counseled, and to help him develop his career if he is willing to be disciplined and settle down to do so,” - Duncans Mugumya, Commissioner Physical Education and Sports at the Education Ministry
Public sentiment regarding what disciplinary action should be taken towards the athlete has been divided into two. His family and friends have been extremely vocal in demanding his immediate release. The President of the Uganda Boxing Federation (UBF) blames the Government of Uganda for the reason why athletes go missing claiming that it is due to a lack of support for the athletes. He also stated that harsh treatment towards Ssekitoleko will discourage young people from joining the sport.
Though on the surface, this may seem like the story of Ssekitoleko, it speaks about the issues that athletes from developing countries such as Uganda face. The Ugandan athletes that are competing in Tokyo 2021 expressed their concern for Ssekitoleko and shared insight into the stories of athletes and how they work towards winning for their countries and yet the countries show little to no appreciation to them.
“We’ve been quiet for a long time but we go through a lot! Sometimes we’ve had to eat food from the previous night or even shared mukene (silverfish) for Shs500 among seven people,” - Winnie Nanyondo, Olympics middle-distance runner.
“Yes, people will cheer you here when on television but after the Olympics, no one knows where we live. After we leave Tokyo, do people know what we feed on?” she continued. Sekitoleko’s mother Juliet Nalwadda also explained that to support her son’s athletics career, she has borrowed money to buy food and medicine for him. “I am disappointed with the government because whenever they take athletes to represent Uganda, in return they only care about those who have won medals, and the rest are only given food during the days of competing,” she said.
When it comes to Uganda’s Olympic presence, there have always been reports of how the number of officials present far outweigh the athletes. There have been allegations made that the officials are bringing their family members and friends with them instead of spending more on the athletes. According to the officials, there is a reasonable explanation for this and the justification for the presence of each member present is available.
Still, it should be noted that when half the delegation to the Olympics is just officials, they should have kept a better eye on their athletes. When the athletes arrive for sporting events, they must adhere to a strict rule of conduct and the range of activities they can partake in is limited. Additionally, an allowance of 7 million Ugandan Shillings (1,968 USD) has been given to the athletes which Ssekitoleko has also received. Further reasons for Ssekitoleko being detained included how exactly the weightlifter got on the Olympic team while not qualified.
The spokesman for Uganda’s Criminal Investigations Directorate Charles Twiine said “What is visibly clear here is that there is a probable fraud of airlifting a person with full knowledge that he had not qualified,” He continued “Now the fundamental question is: Was he part of the fraud as a conspirator?” While it is unclear on how he went to Japan without qualifying for the Olympics, while held in custody in Uganda, he told the police that he went thinking he would participate.
Ssekitoleko also stated that he felt suicidal after finding out that he will not be able to participate in the Olympics
Prominent political figures such as Ugandan presidential candidate Henry K Tumukunde have supported the weightlifter saying that he needs to be given a second chance.
He took to twitter to say that “Talent needs guidance & the right environment to be fully realized.” Additionally, the hashtag #StandWithSsekitoleko is trending in Uganda right now. The President of the nation Yoweri Museveni has been accused of illegally detaining suspects for an extended period of time despite Uganda’s Constitution stating that the detained are to either be released or presented in court in no more than 48 hours after their arrest.