POSTED: March 16th 2012

NEIL WILSON: The thorny issue of athletes changing nationality

London will host the Olympics this summer / SFC
London will host the Olympics this summer / SFC

THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An exclusive, authoritative series from Sports Features Communications

LONDON: Jacques Rogge would presumably not approve of the silver medal that Ilham Tanui Ozbilen won for the host nation at the IAAF world indoor championships in Istanbul. The clue to the IOC president’s disapproval is the middle name.

Tanui was Ozbilen’s original family name when he was Kenyan. For no better reason than to ensure his financial future, the former William Biwott Tanui transferred his allegiance to Turkey in 2009. The IOC, we learned this week from Rogge, does not like that.

The furore raged around the American athletes who switched nationality to Britain because it gave them greater support and a better chance of making the Olympic Games but the new Brits were in a minority. The greater number of imported athletes were African-born representing Gulf States, Turkey or Azerbajan.

“Athletes who switch allegiance for money reasons, we don’t like it. Legally we cannot stop it but that does not mean we love it,” said Rogge.

He is wrong. The IOC could insist in every case on the athletes serving the three year qualification that is in its rules. Better it could lengthen that period.

Bernard Legat, a Kenyan-born runner who won the 3,000 metres in Istanbul for the United States, was resident in the United States for seven years before he was granted citizenship and was forced to miss a world championships before the IAAF accepted the change.

Wilson Kipketer, another Kenyan who switched nationality to Denmark before breaking Sebastian Coe’s world 800 metres record, was made to serve seven years residency before Denmark gave him a passport.

That is as it should be if nationality in sporting terms is to mean anything. May I suggest to the IOC that they show their distaste for those who move countries by making it next to impossible.

Those who enjoy dual nationality, such as American Tiffany Porter who won silver in the 60 metres hurdles for Britain, should be made to choose which country they represent by their eighteenth birthday. Further change should not be allowed.

All others should be banned from a switch, with two exceptions. Those given political asylum and those who marry and move country. Each should have to serve three years – the normal time it takes for a spouse to receive her new country’s passport in many countries anyway -  before they qualify for their new country’s team.

Why should the  IOC act? Because in a sense it is to blame. At the first three Olympic Games of the modern era there were no national teams. Athletes entered themselves. Only with the introduction by the IOC before the 1908 Games of national Olympic committees with the power of selection did nationality come to matter.

And what was the immediate result? A furore at the Games where some countries threatened boycott over use of the wrong flags and Britain and the United States became embroiled in a diplomatic row that affected sporting relations for years.

NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.

Keywords · Neil Wilson · IOC ·

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