x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Olympics: Shortcut to new sporting heights

Changing of nationalities is not just for the opportunist, it can be a way of inspiring future generations, writes Paul Radley.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar competes in the Men's High Jump Final on Day 11 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 7, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** 149946353.jpg
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar competes in the Men's High Jump Final on Day 11 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 7, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** 149946353.jpg

Apparently there is other sport going on elsewhere in Britain this month. Most notably, a cricket series to decide who are the best Test team in the world.

Or, as some people describe it, a series to decide whether or not England's South Africans are better than South Africa's South Africans.

Something similar is going on inside the Olympic Stadium at London 2012, too. In the distance races, the contest is under way to see if Ethiopia's Ethiopians are still better than everyone else's Ethiopians. Or if the Kenyans running for Kenya are quicker than the Kenyans running for everyone else.

Of the nine track representatives Bahrain have in London this week, seven are naturalised Ethiopians, and the other two are naturalised Kenyans.

From the athletes' point of view, running has obviously been their passport to a good living, which is fair enough. It is not as though the Arabian Gulf is short of expatriates who have travelled there for work. Not all choose to represent their adopted homeland at sport, but some do.

In cricket, for example, the UAE often field a national team made up exclusively of expatriates. However, because of cricket's rules, each player has had to demonstrate a considerable commitment to the country, with the majority having to have been resident there for seven years or more.

Rugby in the country is similarly expatriate heavy. Three years residency makes a player eligible, and thus the UAE team is full of Britons, Australians, South Africans and Irishmen.

Those rules might not be quite as stringent as in cricket, but the adopted national team players have at least shown a duty to the country over a certain length of time.

Does the same follow in athletics? It is questionable. The IAAF's transfer of allegiance rules are spurious. Basically, so long as the two nations agree to it, it seems to be OK for an athlete to swap to wherever will have them.

Nationality is not as black and white as it once was. One of the most popular home gold medal winners at these Games was born in Somalia and now spends most of his time living in the United States. Yet Mo Farah is unquestionably a product of Britain.

Some are more tenuous. Bethlem Desaleyn competed for the UAE in the 1,500 metres in London under her Ethiopian name, but she also has the name Marian Abdulla Mubarak, which she was given when she became eligible for the Emirates in 2010.

The promising 20-year-old runner, who went out in the first round at London 2012, was born and raised in Ethiopia, lives and trains there, and rarely comes to the UAE. Just by appearing in London, she became the first female track Olympian to compete for the Emirates. She said she hopes to inspire Emirati females by appearing there, which is part of the governing body's reasoning for recruiting her in the first place.

Some people at the UAE Athletics Federation want to hire more ready-made products of Africa. The thinking goes that if they can raise the standing of athletics at the top, and in so doing provide some visible role models wearing UAE colours on the big stage, it can only be good for the sport.

It is not an exact science, though. People can tell the difference between a role model and an opportunist. However, while Desaleyn may represent the branch, the athletics federation are not neglecting the roots. They want to grow their own champions in a more organic fashion, too.

While the Games have been going on, there have been groups of promising Emirati athletes in training camps in Bulgaria, Barcelona and Dubai.

It is going to take a while but it can be done. Arabian Gulf neighbours have already proved that.

Mutaz Essa Barshim, the son of Qatari-Sudanese parents, won a bronze medal for Qatar in the high jump on Tuesday night. He is a product of the Aspire academy in Doha, the first major triumph of that much-trumpeted institution.

Hopefully his success can be a watershed for homebred Gulf Arabs to aspire to the top, even if the hired hands are keeping their seats warm for now.

International sport is supposed to be our best against your best, but it is no longer as simple as that. Just ask those cricketers in the home dressing room at Lord's next week who can speak Afrikaans.

pradley@thenational.ae

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