Author Mark Richards

The World Athletics Championships have finished. Not for the first time, many pundits commented unfavourably on athletes ‘transferring’ to a new country – and then winning medals. Can this be justified? Or are we just being hypocritical in our reaction?

So the World Athletics Championships are over and Britain did reasonably well in the medals table. We finished sixth – just behind China and ahead of Ethiopia. The USA won by a long way and looking further down the table, there was Bahrain in 12th place with a gold and a silver.

Bahrain? That is not a country that is a household name when it comes to athletics: it does not – as the now retired Brendan Foster would have said – have “a proud history of distance running.” So how has Bahrain won two medals – gold from Rose Chelimo in the women’s marathon and silver from Salwa Eid Naser in the women’s 400m?

Rose Chelimo was born in Kenya: Salwa Eid Naser was born as Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu in Nigeria, to Nigerian parents. Both of them opted to run for Bahrain for ‘economic reasons.’

Is this a new development?

Far from it. At the last Olympics in 2016, Bahrain’s two medals were both won by Kenyan athletes, with Ruth Jebel winning the country’s first ever Olympic gold in the women’s 3,000m steeplechase. The 19-year-old Jebel was – like Chelimo and Eid Naser – running for ‘economic reasons,’ despite still living and training in Kenya. She was simply another example of a growing trend – rich Middle Eastern states recruiting some of the top African talents.

Bahrain’s Olympic team was comprised primarily of runners from Kenya and Ethiopia, with a supporting cast from Jamaica, Morocco and Nigeria – and almost none from Bahrain. Every Olympic medal ever won by Bahrain has been won by an athlete born outside the country.

If we go right back to 2003, Stephen Cherono, a Kenyan athlete, switched his allegiance to Qatar and became known as Saif Saaeed Shaheen – in exchange for a lifetime monthly salary of $1,000, as many trainers as he could wear and the very best training facilities. Previously a promising, but not outstanding, athlete in Kenya he went on to win the 3,000m steeplechase at the 2003 World Athletics Championships. His brother – who still ran for Kenya – refused to congratulate him.

Can we blame the athletes for the World Athletics Championships?

It is hard to blame the athletes. Talented runners in Kenya or Ethiopia are hardly uncommon and competition for the national team – and the potential rewards that go with it – must be intense. It is hard to blame an athlete from a poor country for taking a shortcut to international competition and fame and fortune.

The world athletics championships

Thank goodness Britain does not do anything like that…

You might want to think again: we do not want to be accused of hypocrisy. Older readers may remember the Daily Mail’s campaign to get British citizenship for South African athlete Zola Budd, conveniently allowing her to run for the UK at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It was at the time of the sporting boycott of South Africa due to apartheid, and Ms Budd – who controversially finished 7th in the women’s 3,000m at the Olympics – unquestionably had her application processed rather more quickly than normal.

Kevin Pietersen, who is fifth on England cricket’s list of all-time run scorers was born in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, albeit to an English mother. Johanna Konta – who now represents GB and reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon this year, was born in Australia to Hungarian parents. She even represented Australia until 2012.

…And football fans will remember Jack Charlton’s time as manager of the Republic of Ireland. When he was the manager of the Republic, Big Jack famously unearthed many footballers who would not make the England team, but who just happened to have an Irish grandparent – and who, like the African athletes, wanted their chance at international competition. Those were the days: who needs a football team with a backroom staff of psychologists, masseurs and dieticians? All Jack had was an assistant manager and a genealogist.

It is not just athletes…

It is not just signing up athletes. Middle-Eastern countries have ‘signed up’ events as well, with both the 2019 World Athletics Championships and the 2022 World cup due to be held in Qatar. The Athletics will be held from 28th September to 6th October – when the temperature will be around 30 degrees. Let us hope the marathon is run ridiculously early in the morning…

And as we wrote last week, Qatar Sporting Investments own the French football team Paris St Germain and have just shattered the transfer record in buying Neymar for €222m. There is every likelihood that Neymar will become the ‘face’ of the 2022 – World Cup which, whatever our misgivings about the working conditions there, will be going ahead in Qatar.

I have changed my mind…

So is ‘buying’ an athlete really any different to buying a football team or even, say, a racehorse? This has been an interesting article to write. I started it convinced that I would come out strongly against the practice of ‘buying’ athletes and their gold medal chances: that irrespective of the money involved, national pride was at stake, that international competition was between countries and people born in those countries.

At the end of it, I am not so sure. If I won the Euromillions I might very well ‘financially dope’ my local football team into the football league. Vast numbers of football fans would do the same thing. If you have already won the ‘gulf millions’ and control a country it is natural to do the same thing. The World Cup, the world’s most expensive footballer, a gold medal – they all bring prestige and international recognition. If I were a poor, but promising, athlete in a country with hundreds of other poor but promising athletes, would I be tempted by Bahrain’s money? Of course, I would.

Perhaps the fault lies not with the countries who are doing buying medals, but with the sports administrators and the rules that allow them to do it in the first place. The IAAF – athletics’ governing body – has now suspended new transfers between countries while it ‘looks at the rules.’ Over to the men in suits…