Less than three weeks before they were to represent Cuba at the Olympics, two champion boxers applied for asylum in San Diego on Monday, becoming political rather than athletic symbols.
"This was a purely political decision," said Al Rogers, a spokesman for the law firm representing Ramon Garbey and Joel Casamayor, both 22. "They very easily could have won the gold and then defected, but they chose not to fight Castro's war."
Garbey and Casamayor slipped away last week during free time while the 12-member Cuban team was training in Mexico.
For the past few days the boxers worked closely with Frank Ronzio, an immigration attorney and boxing manager. They met in a hotel in the border city of Tijuana, Mexico, to discuss their options, Rogers said.
"We did our homework. We wanted this to be dealt with in a smooth, professional matter," Rogers said.
The only snag came Sunday night when the men appeared at the San Ysidro port of entry to turn themselves in, and the office did not have an asylum officer on duty, according to Rogers and another spokesperson for the men.
"They were scared," Rogers said. "I think they feared the Cubans were looking for them."
The boxers were told they could return to their hotel room in Tijuana and appear at the port the next morning, but they declined. Immigration officials then took them to the processing center in El Centro.
The INS traditionally transfers individuals seeking political asylum to the El Centro center, where detention hearings usually take place.
Garbey and Casamayor were considered strong contenders for gold medals. Cuba won seven gold medals in the 1992 Olympics.
Casamayor, who has fought at 125 pounds, won a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Garbey was the 1993 world champion at 176 pounds.