GCC's imported athletes are not a bad thing

Bahrain, Qatar and UAE have all been accused of 'buying athletes'. But it's not as simple as that.

Meryl D'Souza August 21, 2016

At the Rio Olympics, UAE’s Sergiu Toma bagged the country’s second-ever Olympic medal. His bronze in the judo event ended the country's 12-year medal drought after Sheikh Ahmed bin Hasher Al Maktoum’s double trap gold in 2004. 

You’d think an achievement like that would be a cause for celebration, yet not everyone was happy. Some Emiratis took to social media to point out Toma’s Moldovan heritage and the fact that he was only handed a UAE passport three years ago.

While there is a case to be made for the lack of home grown talent in the GCC – at least six from UAE’s 13-member contingent were of foreign origin – winning a medal at the Olympics should not be the cause of a Twitter war. Toma's roots may be Moldovan but his success at the Rio Olympics belongs to the UAE. 

He said as much: “We always dreamt of giving the best results for this country because they always support the team. They never say no. If the coach says we want to go to Tokyo, the UAE say ‘OK’ and organise a training camp for us there. So I want to say thank you and I hope it is not the last medal.”

The GCC – Bahrain and Qatar in particular – is often under the spotlight of 'buying success', but look closer and you’ll realise many other countries participating in the Olympics did the same, admittedly to a smaller extent.

Take for example the United States, the consistently dominant team at every Summer Olympics, with now over 1,000 medals in its history. But even this year, about eight per cent of its athletes (46 in total) were born in foreign countries. That includes Kenyan-American runner Bernard Lagat, Cuban-American gymnast Danell Leyva, and Australian-born equestrian Phillip Dutton.

On August 9, The Washington Post ran a piece on how Qatar’s team was made up of athletes that come from 17 countries and five continents. From the 39 attending the Olympics on behalf of Qatar, 23 were born outside the country. Contrast that with the USA figure given above and factor in that Qatar has participated in only nine editions of the Summer Games, while USA has showed up at every one of them except 1980.

Bahrain is another GCC nation that has received flak for naturalising athletes. From its 30-member contingent, only four are Bahraini natives. Their athletics men’s team has four athletes born in Kenya, three in Ethiopia, one in Nigeria and one in Morocco. Their women’s team also features three athletes born in Ethiopia, another three in Nigeria and one in Kenya.

Those figures are alarming but so are these: one in five of the 140 competitors spread across 55 teams in the table tennis event at the Rio Olympics were born in China. Out of that figure, only six represented the world’s most populous nation. 

Of course athletes making the switch get an ample amount of monetary compensation and cover, but that’s not all they get. Most of the African players that are naturalised come from a state of affairs that leave a lot to be desired. 

Over the years, Nigerian athletes have been asked to sponsor themselves at an Olympics, have been left stranded at foreign airports with no aid and are sometimes not fed for days before events. On the other hand, many former Chinese players make the switch citing competition.

Make no mistake, there is a moral issue here, but all of it is happening well within the confines of the sport’s rules. Unlike FIFA, the International Olympic Committee doesn’t follow the effective rule that states that once an athlete has played for a country in an internationally sanctioned tournament at the senior level, he’s bound to that country for life.

Why this passport swapping may be a good thing

Athletics isn’t a glamorous sport. Not in the way football or basketball is. It doesn’t even have a large fan base like cricket does. Many athletes who work ever so hard to represent their country can come from difficult backgrounds. It’s natural that they would jump ship for more money.

But there’s also the case to be made for being able to take advantage of the facilities that the GCC nations give them. To be your absolute best, you need the atmosphere to be conducive to helping you grow.

I’m an Indian. My country is the second most populous one in the world and yet, we finished the Olympics with just two medals – a silver and a bronze. We could have won more in other events but I’d like to draw your attention to gymnastics where Dipa Karmakar finished fourth in the finals.

Gymnastics is not something we’ve ever paid attention to in our country. We’re cricket mad and couldn’t care for other sports. Yet, this girl made the whole country take notice. She had to resort to doing the death vault just to qualify for Rio and did it again in the finals to finish where she did.

Despite being in a country that fights for space and resources just to train its gymnasts, Karmakar went toe-to-toe with the best in the world. Had she just had a little more than what she was given, you couldn’t help but feel that she’d have added a third medal to India’s tally.

The thing is, I wouldn’t blame her if she decided to move and pursue gymnastics somewhere else. She’s a world-beater, but needs to be given the best if she has to beat the best.

You can’t blame athletes for wanting to do what’s best for their careers and their families. If the GCC, with all its money, facilities and infrastructure, lets them compete with the best in the world based on merit and nothing else, then why wouldn’t these athletes switch? No one blames you when you take up a job in a foreign land for better prospects.