MIAMI — They turned in their room keys and left behind their suitcases and other personal belongings. Why five Haitian soccer players and their coach decided to vanish while participating in the 2022 Special Olympics Games in Orlando remains a puzzling mystery.

What happened to them and why did they leave? Police are trying to find out.

“The reason for their departure from the Games is currently unknown,” the Special Olympics told the Miami Herald in a statement. “The well-being of these delegates is our foremost concern. Local authorities have indicated they have no reason to believe the health and safety of any of the individuals is at risk.”

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The athletes’ disappearance was first made public by the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, which announced in a bulletin Tuesday that it was investigating a missing person’s case. The case involved six adult members of the Haitian delegation, the release said, who arrived in the United States to participate in the games, which started last Sunday and end on June 12.

The athletes and their coach are members of the Haiti unified soccer team, which consists of players with intellectual disabilities and those without. They were last seen, deputies said, around 2:30 p.m. Eastern time Monday at 710 S. Victory Way in Kissimmee, which is near the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

“At this time, we believe this is an isolated event and do not suspect foul play,” the sheriff’s office release said.

The missing individuals are Antione Mithon, 32; Nicholson Fontilus, 20; Peter Berlus, 19; Anderson Petit-Frere, 18; Steevenson Jacquet, 24; and Oriol Jean, 18. A source familiar with the incident said that Mithon is the coach, and that all of the missing men are from the FC Toro soccer club in Port-au-Prince.

The group’s disappearance has hit Haiti’s Special Olympics hard, as well as members of the Haitian community.

“With these types of events and with the situation that is happening in Haiti, it’s unfortunate that there are people who are going to be selfish and take these opportunities for themselves and not look at the needs of the greater community and the common good for all of us,” Haiti’s Special Olympics Board Chair Rachel Pierre-Champagne told the Herald in an interview, confirming the incident.

Pierre-Champagne said despite “the stain” the incident has put on her athletes’ stellar performance, the other remaining 18 athletes continue to forge on. She noted that the athletes had to overcome incredible challenges just to get to the games; from wading through Haiti’s escalating gang violence and rampant kidnappings to Haitian society attitude about athleticism and disabilities. The first isn’t viewed as an opportunity for advancement, and the latter is often the treated with disregard and discrimination.

“I’m just proud of the athletes,” she said, listing medals won in track and field and by the six-member equestrian team this week. “A number of them are coming from the most dangerous parts right now of the metropolitan area, just to prepare themselves to be part of that one moment that really allows them to shine.”

This is not the first time athletes have disappeared while attending a match. Last year, Cuba had several baseball players defect, including nine during the World Cup in Mexico, and Cesar Prieto vanished after arriving in Florida for an Olympic qualifier.

Cuba has a list of top players who defected to the U.S. during international competition.

But for Haiti, which also had three soccer players who decided to remain in Mexico last year after a game, it is always a worrying occurrence amid difficulties regular Haitians and the country’s budding athletes already face to get U.S. visas.

Of the five Haitian players who vanished, only one has intellectual disability. He was rooming with one of the other missing soccer players who does not have a disability, two sources said.

Osceola deputies did not respond to calls for comments. In the release, they said all of the men turned in their room keys and left their personal belongings behind. The disappearance, Pierre-Champagne said, was discovered during a health screening.

The incident is overshadowing what delegates and athletes had hoped would have otherwise been an uplifting story about sacrifice and determination by a delegation that despite the country’s insecurity, managed to make it this far.

It’s a story, Pierre-Champagne said, about how sports has given courage to individuals, who not only have to cross dangerous gang-controlled neighborhoods just to practice, but have found opportunity in a country where they are limited even when you don’t have a disability.

“In Haiti, I would say that athleticism is not something that is considered an opportunity for people to shine; it’s just something seen as recreation,” she said. “But this really changes the competence of these individuals, a lot of them who are living with intellectual disabilities, most likely autism.”

Among the athletes, she said, is the soccer player who did not go with the group and helped win two gold medals for his team in 2019 during a competition in Abu Dhabi.

The player has since helped his teammates win matches against Arkansas, South Carolina and Washington State this week, she said.

The remaining athletes, she said, will return to Haiti.

“A number of them have become leaders in their community as a result of being part of the Special Olympics. I remember a parent telling me that, at one point, her family was telling her to get rid of the kid, ‘Why do you want a kid that can’t talk?'” Pierre-Champagne said. “Because she was able to find the school where she was active in that school as part of Special Olympics Haiti, her daughter has been able to travel with Special Olympics and compete at three different games to date, and has won medals in every of these games and now teaches soccer at her church.”

In addition to soccer, the Haiti contingent includes track and field, and the equestrian team, which has existed since 2004 and has traveled regularly to the U.S. since 2005 for competition.

In 2019, the Special Olympics Haitian Equestrian team had two riders in Abu Dhabi who won one gold, three silver and one bronze medals. There are currently six riders at the Special Olympics in Orlando, which also won medals this week.

Unable to practice for five weeks leading up to the competition, due to gang violence and rampant kidnappings in Port-au-Prince, members of the team flew to South Florida a week early after the U.S. Embassy agreed to move up their visa appointments, and American Airlines agreed to change their tickets without charging fees, said a delegation member.

Also, with the help of the chairman of Special Olympics International, Timothy Shriver, they got financial help for lodging, and Vinceremos Therapeutic Riding, agreed to provide three days of free therapeutic riding at its facilities in West Palm Beach.

“It’s a beautiful story,” said the member of the equestrian team’s 10-member delegation, who added that the news of the missing athletes “came like a bombshell.”

© 2022 Miami Herald
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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