Rule on imported athletes goes too far

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 March, 2008, 12:00am

China has long dominated the world of table tennis. Before panda diplomacy, there was ping-pong diplomacy. This dated back to the 1970s with the warming of relationships between the mainland and the United States, and the exchange of their table tennis stars.

Now, as China emerges as a world power, it is exporting many top-rate players of the sport to the world. Some have become naturalised citizens and go on to represent their adopted countries at major sporting events. There is nothing unusual about this. With globalisation comes the internationalisation of all kinds of sport. We now routinely see athletes who represent English-speaking countries who speak with foreign accents. And, there is no greater honour for athletes than to represent their countries, adopted or otherwise, in a sport to which they have devoted their lives. Yet, in a futile and shameful decision, the world governing body of table tennis has ruled that players over the age of 21 who have switched countries will be barred from competing in top events. Those under 21 will face tough restrictions to take part in them. This backward move borders on outright discrimination and undermines the whole notion of citizenship.

Though it is stated as a general rule, it is hard to avoid concluding the measure adopted by the International Table Tennis Federation is aimed specifically at China. Thirteen of the 16 players at last year's women's World Cup, for example, were Chinese, representing not only the mainland and Hong Kong, but also seven other countries. Hong Kong, which voted against the move and benefits from talent imported from the mainland, will suffer as a result of the decision.

Athletes should always be citizens of the countries they represent at major international events; and two to three years is a common naturalisation period. Hong Kong - where seven years of residency is needed - has to seek special dispensation for imports who do not yet meet that requirement. It would be unfair for countries to effectively buy top players from overseas to win at competitions and be able to enter them immediately. But the new rule imposing a total ban goes to the other extreme.

Federation president Adham Sharara said the objective of the rule was to encourage countries to develop indigenous talent. This is a worthy goal. But the means it has chosen to achieve it are excessive and unjust.