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Can gold medals be bought?

By Claudia Ferguson

While the Olympic spirit would insist that athletes are given every chance to be the best they possibly can, questions are being asked about countries that are prepared to stretch the boundaries of this ethos, just to achieve success.

The enabling of and, in some cases, encouraging athletes to switch nationalities can be seen from two perspectives. One is admirable, the other is questionable.

At the Rio Olympics, 85 athletes are competing for ‘new’ countries after switching their citizenship. For talented athletes this has resulted from the offer of money, training facilities, coaching and a guaranteed chance to make the Olympic team.

Ruth Jebet is a case in point. The Kenyan-born athlete won gold for Bahrain in the 3000m steeplechase event in Rio. With the talent pool so deep in her native Kenya, Jebet gained Bahraini citizenship in 2013. She says she has no regrets because it has provided her with an education and a roof over her family’s head.

While Jebet established her credentials by winning gold, it’s raised questions about athletes should be allowed to choose the easiest route to success. Bahrain and other oil-rich countries like Qatar stand accused of ‘buying’ their gold medals.

The reality is that it’s not too difficult for athletes to switch national allegiances. Under section 40 of the Olympic Charter, an athlete must wait three years after last competing for his or her country of origin before being eligible to don the colours of another nation.

This pathway enabled Qatar to put together a handball team of 14 players, 11 of them were foreigners from nine countries and four continents. The head of the Qatar Handball Federation, Ahmed Mohammed Abdulrab Al Shaabi, stated: “We’re a small nation with limited human resources, so we had to bring players from outside.”

The issue of poor or less-privileged athletes switching allegiance to wealthier countries may be frowned upon and even controversial, but little has been done to stop the so-called ‘buying’ of athletes.

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