Countries recruit foreign athletes, with mixed results and motives

 |Aug 16, 2016
In athletics powerhouse Kenya, it's much harder to get ahead as a top athlete than in the Arab country that has less of a sports tradition.
In athletics powerhouse Kenya, it’s much harder to get ahead as a top athlete than in the Arab country that has less of a sports tradition.

It was a moment for the history books: runner Ruth Jebet won the 3000-metre steeplechase on Monday, earning the first-ever Olympic gold medal for Bahrain.

She could have also won it for her native Kenya, had she not transferred allegiance to Bahrain in 2013.

But it would have been a lot tougher.

In athletics powerhouse Kenya, it’s much harder to get ahead as a top athlete than in the Arab country that has less of a sports tradition.

“There are so many athletes in Kenya,” Jebet told reporters after her victory run of 8 minutes 59.57 seconds, less than a second shy of the world record.

“In Bahrain I get the chance to go to school,” she added.

She was trailed by her former compatriot Hyvin Jepkemoi, who won silver in 9:07.12. Two other Kenyans ran in the final.

The African online news portal Okayafrica compared the recruitment of African athletes, especially by wealthy Arab countries, to Russia’s doping problem.

While the world focuses on doping this Olympics, “another scandal looms large – the practice of poaching African players to bolster otherwise anemic national teams around the globe,” Okayafrica said.

Another example of the “poaching” phenomenon is Kenyan-born marathon runner Eunice Kirwa, who clinched silver for Bahrain in the Rio marathon, behind Kenyan winner Jemima Sumgong.

Kirwa is a former international competitor for her country of birth. The 32-year-old started running for the oil-rich Gulf state only in 2013, but she left no doubt about her national allegiance in Rio.

“This is very important for me. It’s also important for my country,” she said.

Qatar, which wanted to host the Olympic Games for years now, has a large number of foreign-born athletes in Rio. Only one of the two women in Qatar’s Rio team – swimmer Nada Arkaji – was born in the country.

Sixteen-year-old 400m runner Dalal Mesfer al-Harith comes from a Moroccan family of female runners and she was spotted by Qatari talent scouts at the age of 12.

“They are focusing on women’s sport and in one or two years from now there will be more women,” al-Harith said about her adopted country.

“Qatar has been trying for years to get the Olympic Games to the country,” said Geoff Harkness, a sports sociologist at Morningside College in Iowa, who has been researching the relationship between sports and Arab society.

“That only works when the country shows that it accepts human rights and lets women participate in social life, including sports,” said Harkness.

Arab countries are not alone in poaching athletes though.

German sports officials have complained about Turkey’s recruitment of many track and field athletes, which resulted in 12 medals at this year’s European championships.

The country has not won a single track and field medal so far in Rio. Polat Kemboi Arikan, who left his Kenyan passport and his original name Paul Kipkosgei Kemboi behind in 2011, is the European champion but finished only 13th for Turkey in the 10,000m on Saturday.

But it’s Qatar that has made the most negative headlines around the world with its team selections. It now has a national handball team made up of a large number of naturalized players, mainly from European countries.

“Qatar are creating a fake team,” former international handball referee Christer Ahl said.

“They are putting together players with no apparent connection to the country and are kicked out if they don’t contribute to a medal or other success,” he told the British newspaper Sunday Telegraph.

After its recruitment drive, Qatar’s handball team came second in last year’s world championships, behind winners France.

The team has struggled into the quarter-finals in Rio, but that has not been the hardest part for some of the players.

After Qatar beat Croatia 30-23 in the group phase, Croatian-born Qatari player Marko Bagaric was troubled.

“I played with many of these players, and I lived with some of them in Croatia, in clubs,” he said.

“The worst feeling was during the national anthem. Ah, but what can I do? Qatar gave me the opportunity to play in the Olympic Games. It is the dream of any sportsman,” Bagaric said.

Source: DPA