By Kalinga Seneviratne
NEW DELHI (IDN) – It has been simmering since the Doha Asian Games of 2006, which is now perhaps coming to a boil, about whether Arab Gulf States flushed with petrodollars should be allowed to import athletes from Africa merely to win medals at Asian Games. There is a lot of resentment in India because it deprived India of a historic achievement of topping the gold medal table in athletics at the just concluded 18th Asian Games from August 18 to September 2 in Jakarta.
Tiny Arab Gulf States of Bahrain and Qatar stood out with African born athletes sweeping the medals. Bahrain in particular stood out, with all of their 25 medals at the Games having come in track and field, largely from athletes that only recently gained Bahrain nationality.
This has been roundly condemned on social media, especially here in India, with many claiming their presence undermines the Games as a celebration of Asia, and makes a mockery of the Asian Games motto adopted at the first Asian Games in 1951 in India “play the game, in the spirit of the games”.
“Of course [we] can’t blame the athletes but these rich spoilt West Asian nations like Bahrain and Qatar importing Africans for athletics is frankly a joke. Shameful,” tweeted an angry Indian TV News Producer Mehran Zaidi.
Edidiong Odiong, who was born in Nigeria but switched allegiance to Bahrain two years ago, completed the sprint triple crown by winning the women’s 4×100 metres relay alongside her teammates Iman Essa and Salwa Naser – who were also born in Nigeria.
On top of the women’s 4x100m, the women’s 1,500m was won by Ethiopian born Kalkidan Befkadu, who also picked up gold in the 5,000m. Her time was enough to beat fellow Ethiopian-born team-mate Tigist Belay, who took silver. Birhanu Balew, another Ethiopian born athlete, won the men’s 5,000m ahead of Kenyan-born teammate Albert Rop. Bahrain then won the silver in the women’s 4x400m with four athletes all born in Nigeria. They also won the Women’s 400m with Nigerian born Salwa Naser.
Qatar was not to be outdone. Abdelelah Hassan who won Men’s 400m gold for Qatar was born in Sudan, while their Men’s 400m Hurdles gold medallist Abdurrahman Samba was born in Mauritania.
Qatar’s gold medallists, as well as Bahrain’s four gold medallists piped Indians into second place silver medals in 6 events. With India winning 7 golds in athletics to China and Bahrain’s 12 golds each, many in India believe, if not for the African imports, India would have topped the gold medal table with 13 and beaten regional rivals China for the first time in an Asian athletics event.
Asian Games is the world’s second biggest multi-discipline sports event and the Jakarta Games saw 45 countries competing ranging from the West Asian Arab Gulf States, Central Asian former Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan across South and Southeast Asia to Japan, China and Korea in East Asia.
When the Asian Games was launched in India in 1951 it was designed to be celebration of the “Asian spirit” in the post-colonial era. But, it seems that this spirit is being seriously undermined by the medal-greedy rich Gulf States.
“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,” noted the Indian Express newspaper.
Bahrain currently has a population of 1.5 million and Qatar 2.7 million with a GDP of USD 31.86 billion and USD 152.5 billion respectively in 2016. To diversify their economies away from dependency on oil, they are now chasing the huge multi-billion dollar market for staging major sporting events. Qatar is due to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and they also staged an Asian Games in 2006.
It was at these Games that the rut began. In 2006 Doha Games, Kenya-born runners won the men’s 800m, 1500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, 3000m steeplechase and marathon for Qatar and Bahrain. At the 2010 Guangzhou Games, Bahrain and Qatar’s African runners again completely dominated the men’s long-distance track events, taking all six medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m In Incheon in 2014.
Bahrain’s Nigerian import Oluwakemi Adekoya won the women’s 400m just months after switching country, to add to Kenyan-born teenager Ruth Jebet’s gold for the kingdom in the 3,000m steeplechase. Also, Alia Saeed Mohammed – originally from Ethiopia – won the 10,000m for neighbouring United Arab Emirates.
It were the Japanese and Korean athletes that complained in 2014, pointing out that it is unfair to compete in an Asian event with athletes from Africa who are “taller and have a longer stride” which gives them an advantage.
Shifting alliances to win gold is not a recent fad though and it is not restricted to rich Arab nations. Cash-rich western nations, such as the U.S., and some European nations have been at it for a while. Bernard Lagat, 1500 m runner from Kenya moved to the U.S. in 2005 and won five gold medals at the Olympics and World Championships.
South African middle and long-distance runner Zola Budd took British citizenship to compete at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and switched allegiance back to South Africa when sporting boycotts were lifted and ran for her country of birth in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. There have been many more such cases, especially in the past two decades.
“But, what raises eyebrows about the recent Qatari and Bahrainian cases is that they seem to be a part of a larger plan. They scout for talented athletes and when they start making their mark, persuade them to move over,” noted the Indian Express.
Citing IAAF stats, the newspaper said that there have been 21 requests of Kenyans wanting to move to Bahrain since 2012 along with 18 cases of Ethiopians. In total, 48 African athletes have moved to Bahrain between 2012 and 2017 and three have moved to Qatar.
“It has become abundantly clear with regular multiple transfer of athletes, especially from Africa, that the present rules are no longer fit for the purpose,” IAAF President Sebastian Coe said recently. He added that ideally one should finish once international career with the same vest you wore, when starting your career, with a few exceptions.
But, African athletes have defended their actions in numerous interviews in recent years, arguing that because there is abundant talent in Africa, one should have the right to pursue one’s career elsewhere, to enjoy your moment of glory.
“Financial considerations are often at the heart of these cases”, argues Indian Express’s sports writer Tushar Bhaduri. “Most of these athletes come from humble backgrounds and the prospects of a better and affluent life prompts them to move to another country”.
It is ironic that in the women’s 400m Bahrain’s Nigerian import Salwa Naser pushed India’s rising teenage star Himal Das to second place. Das comes from a very humble rural farming background, whose father allowed her to leave for Assam’s state capital Gauhati telling her coach, that if he could provide her with 3 meals a day, she could go.
She became the first Indian to win the World Junior Championship gold earlier this year triggering wild celebrations in India with Prime Minister Narendra Modi sending her a special message of congratulations.
If this trend of African imports continues, Asian countries may have to ask the Arab Gulf States to join the African Games that are also held every four years. Arab countries Algiers, Morocco and Egypt are already part of African Games and they do not take part in Asian Games.
Asia really starts from Iran and spreads across South and Southeast Asia to Japan and Korea and China. The Asian Games need to preserve the Asian identity and spirit that original founders led by India embarked upon, observers insist. [IDN-InDepthNews – 02 September 2018]
Photo: The closing ceremony marks the end of the quadrennial multisport event held from August 18 until September 2 in Jakarta and Palembang, South Sumatra. Credit: Asian Games 2018.
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.
facebook.com/IDN.GoingDeeper – twitter.com/InDepthNews