Dutee Chand would be sick of the sight of Edidong Odiong. The Odisha sprinter’s silver medals in the 100m and 200m were the culmination of a personal story of redemption. But it could have been better, but for the Bahrain girl in both finals.
Hard luck, one would have thought. Some would say unfair, as Odiong would not have even been at the Asian Games without changing allegiance from Nigeria in 2014.
This was not an isolated incident. Five days into the athletics programme, there were four other events where India was denied a gold medal by Qatar or Bahrain due to athletes originally hailing from Africa. The Asian Games is the second biggest multi-discipline sports event in the world, with as many as 45 countries in the fray. One would have thought that there would be no need to bring in athletes from outside, but it seems a strategy from Bahrain and Qatar to punch above their weight on the sporting stage.
Qatar already owns two of the biggest football clubs in the world – Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain – and will also host the next FIFA World Cup. They aim to make their mark in the athletics arena as well, even if it is through ‘naturalised’ athletes. Three of Qatar’s four gold medals came via athletes born elsewhere while all nine of Bahrain’s gold came through erstwhile Africans. In total, Africans from Qatar and Bahrain have won 20 medals over the first five days of track-and-field action.
In the men’s 400m hurdles, Abderrahman Samba, who was born in Mauritania, won gold for Qatar, relegating India’s Dharun Ayyasamy to the second step of the podium. Samba started in athletics while he was in Saudi Arabia and has several gold medals on the Diamond League circuit.
In the women’s 400m final, Nigerian-turned-Bahraini Salwa Naser pushed India’s U-20 world champion Himas Das to second place. Besides several Diamond League medals, she is a World Youth Championship gold medallist, who won silver at the 2017 World Championship and the 2014 Youth Olympics. Interestingly, India’s Nirmla finished fourth in Jakarta. In the corresponding men’s race, Mohammad Anas came second to Abdalelah Hassan, who was born in Sudan but changed his allegiance to Qatar in 2015. He became the youngest athlete to win a medal in the 400m at the world indoor championships, in Portland in 2016. He is also the first Asian athlete to win a medal in that event at the world championships, following his bronze medal at the 2017 edition in London. He has several Diamond League medals and two gold at the Asian Championships. India’s Arokia Rajiv finished one spot below the podium spots. Last but not the least, three of the four Bahraini runners who won the inaugural 4x400m mixed relay are erstwhile Nigerians, who finished way ahead of the silver-winning Indians.
These were not the only occasions when Indians had to suffer at the hands of the ‘Out of Africa’ contingent. In the women’s 400m hurdles, Nigerian-born, but naturalised Bahrainis, Oluwakemi Adekoya and Jamal Aminat won gold and bronze respectively, and as a result, India’s Anu Raghavan and Jauna Murmu finished out of the medals. Hence, it must have been doubly sweet for Manjit Singh and Jinson Johnson to star in a 1-2 for India in the men’s 800m, relegating Abdullah Abubaker, born in Sudan but running for Qatar, to the bronze medal.
Not a new phenomenon
Shifting allegiance is not a recent fad, and a West Asian country not always the beneficiary. South African middle-distance and long-distance runner Zola Budd took up British citizenship to circumvent the international sporting boycott of her country during the apartheid era. The former 5000m world record holder and two-time World Cross-Country Championship ran for Britain at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and returned to the South African fold and competed on their behalf at Barcelona 1992 after their isolation ended. Bernard Lagat, the second-fastest 1500m runner of all time and a five-time gold medallist at the Olympics and World Championships, moved from Kenya to the United States in 2005. Mo Farah, the most decorated athlete in British history, came over from Somalia as a teenager.
But what raises eyebrows about the recent Qatari and Bahraini cases is that they seem to be part of a larger plan. They scout for talented athletes and when they start making their mark, persuade them to move over. According to IAAF statistics, since 2012, there have been 21 cases of Kenyans requesting for a change of allegiance to Bahrain. The corresponding figure for Ethiopia is 18. In total, 48 African athletes moved to Bahrain between 2012 and 2017, while three have gone to Qatar.
There may come a time, in the not-too-distant future, when athletes will look to impress recruiters from wealthy countries, much like footballers aim to catch the eye of talent scouts from top European clubs at tournaments. As is obvious, Kenyans were the most sought-after athletes due to their prowess in the middle-distance and long-distance races and the country had to suffer big time at the hands of the prodigals in the 2016 Olympics. Ruth Jebet brought Bahrain’s first Olympic gold in the women’s 3000m steeplechase. The Kenyans used to race as a pack before, but have had to change their strategy now.
The trend didn’t go unnoticed by athletics’ world governing body and it is fair to assume that it was not best pleased. “It has become abundantly clear with regular multiple transfers of athletes, especially from Africa, that the present rules are no longer fit for purpose,” IAAF president Seb Coe had said. “Ideally, the vest that you start your international career with is the vest you should end your international career with. With a few exceptions.” It prompted IAAF to modify rules on change of nationality earlier this year. The world body wants rules to sufficiently protect athletes, who just don’t fall prey to the highest bidder. One of the new rules imposes a minimum three-year waiting period before an athlete may transfer to represent another country. Financial considerations are often at the heart of these cases. Most of these athletes come from humble backgrounds and a prospect of a better and more affluent life prompts them to move to a different country, which promises better facilities and other benefits in exchange for sporting glory. But sometimes, the prospect of participating in an Olympics or world championship is behind the move. In Kenya or Ethiopia, with a surfeit of athletic talent, those down in the pecking order may feel they may not have their moment in the sun unless they move to another country.
“In Kenya, there is plenty of talent and some of us think we should utilise our talent elsewhere,” Benson Kiplagat Seurei, who ran for Bahrain at the 2016 Rio Games, has been quoted as saying. A higher standard of living is the major objective.
“Who doesn’t want a better life? We all want a better life,” Naser’s coach, John Obeya said. “I began coaching in Nigeria since 1986 and even travelled with the Nigerian team to several competitions, but I was jobless for a long time until I got this appointment in Bahrain. The welfare of athletes and coaches have to be made a priority.”