Four members of the Ethiopian track team taking part in the World Junior Championships at Hayward Field have been missing since Saturday morning, University of Oregon spokeswoman Julie Brown said Sunday.
It’s possible that the four athletes — three women and a 17-year-old boy — are staying with friends and family elsewhere in the state, “but we have not been able to confirm that with them directly,” Brown said.
Despite speculation, it’s also not been confirmed that the four are seeking political asylum from their native country, Brown said.
The UO Police Department is leading a missing persons investigation with assistance from Eugene police, Portland police and the FBI, Brown said.
The 30-member Ethiopian team consists of 17 females and 13 males, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations website. Brown said she didn’t know the identities of the four athletes who are unaccounted for.
Essar Gabriel, IAAF general secretary, said late Sunday afternoon that association officials don’t know the athletes’ whereabouts.
“We are like you. We are expecting to see what is the situation, what exactly is the case,” he said. “That’s the information I have at this stage.
“At sporting events, this is something that can occur. We are indeed the most universal sport,” Gabriel said. “What has to be said is we do have a thorough process for entry to compete. These were not tourists.”
TrackTown USA president Vin Lananna said he had little information on the situation.
“I don’t really know any of the details of it,” Lananna said Sunday evening. “We actually let the authorities and the IAAF handle it. I don’t know how to handle a situation like that. I’m not even sure we know all the specifics.”
The six-day IAAF track meet, which drew athletes from at least 167 countries, concluded Sunday evening. Most of the teams are presumably flying back to their own countries today or Tuesday, Brown said.
Brown said she is unaware of any previous incidents in which international athletes competing at the UO have sought asylum. This past week’s championships mark the first time that the international meet has been held on U.S. soil.
The four missing Ethiopian athletes “left earlier than expected, ahead of the rest of the team,” Brown said. “We have second- and third-hand information” that suggests they are somewhere in the state, and safe, she said.
The UO Police Department is the lead law enforcement agency because all of the athletes taking part in the championships have been staying in campus residence halls, Brown said.
More than 100 UO students served as volunteer “ambassadors” to the visiting athletes, and the possibility of an athlete seeking asylum was among the potential situations addressed in orientation classes required of all ambassadors, according to student Negina Pirzad in an interview Sunday with the Oregon Daily Emerald.
Pirzad said students were told to relay any information about visiting athletes seeking asylum to the UO police department, which would then contact the U.S. State Department.
Ambassadors were “told that they should prepare for it in case it does happen because it is an international event and we are hosting people from developing countries and places with war,” Pirzad told the UO student newspaper.
Neither Brown nor the director of the ambassador program would confirm that the topic of asylum seekers was addressed. “Orientation for student ambassadors was broad in nature and would have anticipated lots of possibilities,” Brown said.
Most international athletes arrive in the country with travel visas. Such visas typically allow a person to stay in the country for six months, said Raquel Hecht, a longtime immigration law attorney in Eugene who has represented clients from multiple African countries, including Ethiopia.
The asylum process can be painstakingly laborious, however. Upon entry, a person has one year to apply for asylum with the Citizenship and Immigration Services. The CIS then sends an officer to interview the person seeking asylum — though, on average, it takes about a year before that interview is conducted, Hecht said.
A person seeking asylum must prove persecution based on at least one of five factors: race, national origin, ethnicity, membership in a particular social class, or political opinion.
If the CIS does not grant asylum, an applicant can appeal to an immigration judge, then to a Board of Immigration Appeals, then to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and then, conceivably, to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Star athletes also can apply for what’s known as an “aliens of extraordinary ability” claim, rather than for asylum per se. However, such applicants must be deemed to be in the very top percent of their field, and the Ethiopian athletes, who are still in their teens, may be too young to qualify for such a claim, Hecht speculated.
Ethiopia, a landlocked country of 98 million in the Horn of Africa, has seen significant political turmoil — and human rights abuses — in recent years, according to the U.S. State Department and human rights organizations.
The State Department’s annual human rights report, released by Secretary of State John Kerry in February, details a worsening human rights situation. In recent years, the country has adopted several draconian laws, including an Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, that authorities have used to criminalize dissent and arrest opposition leaders, the report said.
Earlier this month, the Ethiopian government filed terrorism charges against seven media bloggers and three independent journalists, all but one of whom has been in detention since April, according to Freedom House, an independent watchdog group that supports democratic change. Ethiopia is rated “Not Free” in the agency’s Freedom in the World 2014 report.
Another political issue involves Ethiopia’s dispute with Egypt over Ethiopia’s construction of the Renaissance Dam, a $4 billion hydroelectric project that Ethiopia is building on the headwaters of the Blue Nile River.
Egypt worries that the mega-project could choke the downstream flow of the Nile River at a time when its own needs for fresh water are expected to increase, The Washington Post has reported. Citing a pair of colonial era treaties, Egypt has argued that the Nile’s waters largely belong to it and that it has veto power over dams and other upstream projects, the newspaper said.
Register-Guard sports columnist Austin Meek and sports reporter Chris Hansen contributed to this report. Follow Jeff on Twitter. Email .