Ask any athlete who competes at the Olympic or Paralympic Games whether they dream of a medal, and nearly all will admit they do, even though some know that the reality of that dream coming true is extremely unlikely.
For these athletes the oft quoted line from the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin rings true. “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well,” he said.
By fighting well, he means giving your all. Walking away knowing that you gave your best, and as long as you give your best you should walk away with your head held high.
Post the Rio Olympics there are many who have questioned whether the emphasis has shifted in the modern Olympics and whether they will ever be the same again. It would appear that for many of those who are unlikely to medal the key thing has indeed been simply to be at an Olympic Games, and to be able to call themselves an Olympian. In many countries that will open a lot of doors in later life. Not so maybe in countries at the top of the medal tally table, but certainly in many of the countries that finish outside the top ten.
The IOC has made no secret that they want less athletes at the Olympic Games. There are also many national Olympic Committees who are now looking at the sheer cost of sending athletes who are unlikely to medal to the Olympic Games, and will be reassessing their processes in the next three years and make the hard decisions on who they support and who they send to Japan.
Winning, it is sad to say has become so important.
There are many who are highly critical of athletes changing their allegiance and running for countries other than the ones of their birth. In some cases the country that is “sponsoring” them is clearly trying to buy sporting success, as sporting success on the international stage does a great deal for national morale. Hence why so many countries invest so heavily in their national athletes.
When it comes to athletics, African athletes are the main target for the cashed-up nations.
In Rio, at the Olympic Games, Qatar’s men’s athletics team consisted of two Sudanese-born runners, one born in Morocco, one in Nigeria, one in Egypt, one in Kenya. Only two of their athletes were born in Qatar. If you look at Bahrain, their men’s athletics team had four athletes born in Kenya, three in Ethiopia, one in Nigeria, one in Morocco and none who were born in Bahrain. Their women’s team also featured three athletes born in Ethiopia, three in Nigeria, one in Kenya and again none born in Bahrain; however to be fair one of Nigerian-born athletes is half-Bahraini). Finally, both women who qualified for the United Arab Emirates’ athletics team were from Ethiopia.
Now to say that all of these athletes chased the cash would be unfair, although in some cases it would be clearly the case. In many of the African countries that these athletes are being recruited from the competition is extremely tough. There is a wealth of talent and it is a highly competitive environment, and for some it may be a challenge to find a spot to compete at the highest level. If they have to fund themselves it becomes even harder.
Although this migration has become more pronounced in recent years, it started at least as early as 2003, when many top Kenyan athletes were persuaded by Qatar and Bahrain to change national allegiances in time for the 2004 Olympics.
The trend of recruiting and naturalising African-born athletes looks likely to continue well into the future. Turkey has joined the race to recruit foreign athletes as well as other European countries. Even the good old United States of America have employed this tactic.
To show just how commonplace the issue is last year, three Nigerians held the record for the fastest 100 metres in Africa, Europe and Asia! What this means is that two of these changed their nationality.
Will the IAAF or the IOC do anything to stop such migration? It is unlikely. One suggestion was that the Olympics should shift its focus, and it should no longer be about national teams but it should go back to being about individual athletes competing against in each other, and may the best man or woman win. This too is unlikely.
What is interesting is to compare the recruitment of foreign athletes for the Paralympic Games. It is extremely rare. It is also interesting to look at the size of the teams from the Arab states that are recruiting African runners.
Qatar has just three athletes at the Paralympic Games, two men and one woman, and they have won one silver medal; In the men’s shot putt F34 – Abdulrahman Abdulqadir winning.
Bahrain sent just two athletes both of those female, and Fatema Nedham won Gold in the Women’s Shot Putt -F53 event.
The United Arab Emirates sent a team of 18 athletes to the Rio Paralympics made up of 12 men and six women. So far they have won three medals, a Gold in the Men’s Powerlifting – 88kg category thanks to Mohammed Khalif and two silver medals in the men’s shooting events both by Abdullah Sultan Alaryani.
For some of the African nations that they recruited from Ethiopia has five athletes at the Paralympics,(38 at Olympics) Nigeria 23 (75 at Olympics), Kenya nine athletes (80 at Olympics) and Sudan nil (6 at Olympics).
It is a fact that in the African nations, like many third world economies, it is an extremely hard life for anyone born with, or suffers from a disability. For those athletes representing their countries in Rio at the Paralympic Games they have beaten astounding odds to reach that level of competition. Sadly even in some of the wealthy Arab states disability is not something that is accepted and so for them to be in Rio competing is also an amazing achievement.
If the IAAF, the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee wanted to turn this trend of ‘recruiting’ African talent into a positive, they should stipulate that for ever dollar invested in an able bodied athlete from a county in Africa an equal or same amount must be invested in a Paralympic athlete from the same country.
This would go a huge way to breaking down the barriers of acceptance in the sponsoring countries, and also in the sponsored countries. Simply to have a proper racing wheelchair would make a massive difference to many aspiring athletes with disabilities in Africa. Currently they are trying to race in a standard wheelchair, and have little or no hope of achieving times that would see them qualify for a Paralympic Games. Such investment could make a huge difference to a great many lives.
It is understandable that talented Africans want the opportunity to compete internationally. That they want to make the most of the talent that they have. It is also clear that if they stay at home their path may be blocked by other athletes of a similar ability or better. So those nations doing the recruiting are offering opportunity not just athletically, but also financially. Surely in most cases they would be happy to know that their defection benefitted someone back at home?
It is unlikely that this exodus will stop in the near future, but surely if these nations are happy to invest in these talented athletes we could encourage them to also give back to the countries they are taking the athletes from? Is that not reasonable?