POSTED: July 13th 2016

NEIL WILSON: Flying to Rio 2016 under flags of convenience

Aras Kaya (L) and Hakan Duvar (R) of Turkey compete in the 3,000m men's steeplechase final at the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam © Getty Images
Aras Kaya (L) and Hakan Duvar (R) of Turkey compete in the 3,000m men's steeplechase final at the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam © Getty Images

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

(SFC) When Aras Kaya finished runner-up in the 3,000 metres steeplechase at the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam last week, he bowed to the Turkish flag.

The surprise was that he recognized it. He had been eligible under IAAF rules to run for Turkey for just four days.

Kaya was born and brought up as a Kenyan.  So was Yasemin Can, previously called Vivian Jemutai, who emerged dramatically as a world force in endurance running when she won the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in Amsterdam. She had been Turkish for 15 months.

Of Turkey's first eight medals at the event, only one was won by a Turkish-born athlete. The others were born in Kenya (4), Cuba, Jamaica and Azerbaijan.

Turkey was following the lead of Bahrain and Qatar. If you can't breed champions, buy them. Ethiopians and Kenyans at first, now from further afield.

Sven Arne Hansen, president of the European Athletic Association, is unhappy about it. He plans to raise it at the IAAF council meeting in Rio before the Olympic Games. He will find a receptive audience.

Sebastian Coe, IAAF president, said at a business conference in London in May that he wanted change. "If they start for a particular country they should finish their career for a particular country," he said.

Coe has asked those looking more generally at IAAF corporate governance to examine its rule 5.4 which requires only 12 months nationality to run under a new national flag, or three year if your birth country objects. They rarely do because those switching are rarely their best.

The Olympic rule is only slightly stricter, demanding three years of nationality since a competitor last competed in a regional championships for another country. Even that was thought by the last IOC president, Jacques Rogge, to be too generous. "We cannot legally stop that (changes) because it is a sovereign matter but let me tell you I frankly do not love that," he said during his presidency.

Turkey will bring its mercenary army of runners to Rio next month, none fluent in the language and few actually resident there. Can may well challenge for the gold against her former national team-mates.

So some events may become a contest to see if Kenyan's Kenyans can beat everybody else's Kenyans. Or Ethiopia's Ethiopians beat other's Ethiopians.

Should it be allowed? Qatar argued when it imported several Bulgarian weightlifters before the 2000 Olympics that, under the Olympic Charter, "the practise of sport is a human right."

And at Olympic level, why not? The Americans who failed to make its Olympic team because they finished fifth to tenth in their track and field championships this month would probably grace any other national team.

So by allowing them to compete under what amounts to a flag of convenience, the the standard of Olympic competition would be improved. More of the best would be there participating.

The question to be answered is whether nationality matters in sport. Those who watch from their couch cheer those under their flag but do the athletes care?

The real nonsense is a medal table. By that measure, Turkey finished fourth in the European event. But not really. 

** 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 · Olympics · Neil Wilson

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