880 days to go

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 March, 2006, 12:00am

Patriotism adds passion and zeal to the Olympic movement. For the joyous victory laps athletes drape themselves in the national colours and soak up their country's cheers.

And the classic tear-jerking moment comes as the victors stand on the podium and watch their country's flag being hoisted as their national anthem echoes through the sporting arena.

But in an increasing number of cases, athletes do not even recognise the music they hear; they've hardly set foot in the nations they are representing and, if a 'compatriot' were to congratulate them, they wouldn't have a clue what they were saying.

While the Olympics have always been in part a celebration of nationalism, identities are becoming increasingly blurred by a mixture of romance, immigration and money.

Of the nearly 11,000 athletes who competed in Athens, several hundred were representing countries they were not born in.

In many ways it's a byproduct of globalisation. Some switched nationalities after they married people from other countries, and others opted for a new passport after they moved to new countries in search of a better life. By and large these moves rarely stir controversy.

What does grate, however, is the shopping spree that some nations have embarked on in lavish efforts to buy national teams.

The charge is led by Qatar, followed closely by Bahrain. Falconry not being an Olympic sport, the sheiks have been troubled of late by the lack of silverware in their trophy rooms, so they have been putting their liquid gold to work in an attempt to remedy the situation. Rather than trying the old fashioned way of cultivating home-grown talent, they just buy it in. Millions of petrodollars have been dangled in front of top athletes from poor countries to entice them to switch allegiance to the tiny desert nations.

Qatar kicked it off by luring nine Bulgarian weightlifters to switch nationality for US$1 million in 1999. That initiative paid immediate dividends as Angel Popov, who changed his name to Said Asaad, won his new country a bronze medal in Sydney, their first Olympic medal.

Athletics was next on the sultanate's shopping list and Kenya's running talent was plundered. Dozens of top African runners were signed up, including Stephen Cherono, the world champion in the 3,000 metres steeplechase, who was enticed by bonuses of US$1 million for any Asian, world, or Olympic title he picks up, plus a base salary of US$1,000 a month for the rest of his life.

Considering he took home just US$1,000 a year when he ran for Kenya, it's not difficult to see why he switched. Like the other athletes, he took a Muslim name, Saif Saaeed Shaheen, and renounced his Christian religion.

'I suppose I'll just have to stop blessing myself when I win races,' he said. But the sacrifices stop there. The Kenyan athletes rarely go to Qatar, continuing to live and train in their native land.

Once their stock of imported runners was piled high, Qatar set their sights on the pool, going after three of the world's top swimmers.

South Africans Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling were offered the best part of US$1 million for a three-year deal, plus million-dollar bonuses for gold medals.

They were tempted, but in the end they turned it down. Schoeman said he was finally convinced to stay when a South African dentist came up with US$30,000 from his savings to encourage him to stay. It was a drop in the pool compared to the kind of money his suitors were talking about, but the gesture moved him enough to want to stay.

The IOC rules say an athlete changing nationality has to stand down from international competition for three years before they can represent their new country at the Olympic Games, unless both countries and the sport's international federation agree to waive the eligibility period.

But many of the sports federations, such as Fina, the international swimming association, only have a one-year eligibility period in place.

The IAAF recently increased its eligibility period from one year to three years in an effort to curb the practice, but the move came only more than 40 Kenyans had signed up for Qatar or Bahrain.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has condemned the athlete trade and urged all the international federations to strengthen change-of-nationality rules. It was 'not legitimate' for athletes to switch nations solely for financial reasons, he said.

'From a moral standpoint, we should avoid this transfer market in athletes.' He said there were many legitimate reasons to change one's nationality, which the IOC respected.

'What is not legitimate is the case when an athlete sells himself as a mercenary and goes to a country of which he does not know the language, the culture, a country where he has no attachment and is not even guaranteed a professional future.

Appropriate or not, some countries are hungry enough for sporting success to do it, and there will always be athletes who can be hooked by the financial rewards. Aside from going for the big names, these oil-rich states are now also hunting younger athletes who have not yet broken on to the international scene.

It's less emotive than poaching national icons and it sidesteps the rules the IOC and international federations are putting in place to stop the trade.

But regardless of whether they get away with the importing of talent or not, can this practice really bring a nation any sporting joy? Do the people of Qatar feel proud when an athlete wearing their colours wins a medal, despite the fact he is to all intents and purposes a Kenyan and he probably couldn't point to Qatar on a map? You'd have to think not.

Sporting prostitutes might pretend they care but deep down you know they're only doing it for the money.