African nations pull out of Youth Olympics in Ebola controversy

Volunteers walk past a poster introducing the official mascot of the 2014 Youth Olympic Games as competition gets underway on Aug. 15 in Nanjing, China.
(Ahmad Yusni / EPA )

Saying they were unhappy about being stigmatized over fears of Ebola, some African countries have withdrawn from a Youth Olympics tournament set to begin Saturday in the Chinese city of Nanjing.

Nigeria said it was in the process of sending home a delegation of 19 officials and teenage athletes who had arrived in China earlier this week.

Sierra Leone and Liberia decided against even sending delegations to China.

The International Olympic Committee in Geneva announced Friday that athletes from Ebola-impacted countries would not be allowed in swimming or combat events. The committee said the decision was made after consultation with the World Health Organization and Chinese officials.

“I am sad that the athletes are suffering twice, first because of the outbreak of the disease in their region and second because they are not able to compete here in Nanjing,” said IOC President Thomas Bach while touring the competition’s youth village Friday in Nanjing.


“Unfortunately, we had to take some precautionary measures to ensure the safety of the young athletes taking part at the Youth Olympic Games.”

Nigerian officials, however, decided to send their athletes home because of their treatment in China.

“Morale is not very high,’’ Nigeria’s consul general in Shanghai, Eniola Ayorinde Otepola, said in a telephone interview Friday. The athletes “were excited to be participating in an international athletic event and arriving to face this kind of stigma and suspicion would not allow them to perform very well.’’

A delegation of 19 Nigerian athletes and officials arrived at the Shanghai airport Tuesday and it was clear from their reception, Otepola said, that it would be difficult for them to compete in China. He declined to elaborate on exactly what happened at the airport.

“They will go home tomorrow,’’ he said.

China announced earlier in the week that it was setting up special channels at international airports for passengers arriving from West Africa. A photo distributed Friday by Chinese state media showed four Nigerians wearing face masks and undergoing a health inspection by officers with the entry-exit inspection and quarantine bureau, who were dressed in full-body protective suits.

The head of Sierra Leone’s National Olympic Committee, Patrick Coker, said officials decided to withdraw from the competition after being warned by the Chinese Embassy in Freetown that the country’s delegation “might find themselves in a troubled and awkward situation once they get to China’s port of entry,’’ according to the Associated Press.

The Youth Olympics are scheduled to begin Saturday and run for two weeks, through Aug. 28. About 3,000 athletes are expected to participate. These are only the second Youth Olympics, the first tournament having taken place in 2010 in Singapore.

Of the four countries impacted by Ebola, only Guinea is continuing its participation in the event, with four athletes competing in track and field events. Two other Guinean athletes, who were supposed to compete in diving and judo, have been withdrawn.

Emmanuelle Moreau, the IOC’s spokeswoman, said the committee had been informed of Sierra Leone’s and Liberia’s withdrawal, but was still hoping that Nigeria would at least participate in the opening ceremonies.

Follow news out of China on Twitter at @BarbaraDemick.