POSTED: February 8th 2017

JOHN GOODBODY: Freeze on athletes changing nationalities is long overdue

IAAF President Seb Coe (center) © Getty Images
IAAF President Seb Coe (center) © Getty Images

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(SFC) As if Seb Coe did not have enough on his plate, international athletics is battling with the vexed question of competitors switching nationalities. It has been a long-standing problem in several sports but, in recent years, this has become an increasingly worrying trend with wealthy countries attracting sportsmen and women with financial incentives.

Now the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF), of which Lord Coe is President, has had the good sense, as well as incidentally maintaining the ban on Russian athletics, of freezing any changes of nationalities.

This follows the Rio Olympics, when the IAAF permitted 85 athletes to represent new nations. 12 of these were in the Bahrain team, having previously competed for either African or Caribbean countries. Indeed the Jamaican Andrew Fisher had only ever been to Bahrain on one occasion. In the 2016 European Championships, Turkey had 11 medallists, nine of whom had switched nationalities.

The situation has become particularly acute because several African countries have far more talented middle and long distance runners and the West Indies more sprinters than can be selected in their national teams. So agents have been busy, hawking athletes round countries eager for them to take part in major international events.

Lord Coe said after an IAAF meeting in Monte Carlo: "I have spoken to many member federations who regularly  receive a list of athletes that are out there and available for trade. This cannot be a sustainable system. It has become abundantly clear that the present rules are simply no longer fit for purpose." In his own country, there has been controversy over the granting of citizenship to what has become known as the "Plastic Brits".

So a working party, led by Hamad Kalkaba Malboum of Cameroon, has been established to see what recommendations can be made to the IAAF Congress before the World Championships in London this August.

There are clearly occasions when changing nationalities is morally acceptable. One such case, with which I was intensely involved, was my judo training partner Angelo Parisi. Born in Italy, he came with his parents to London as a young boy, where he started the sport. But he could not apply for UK citizenship until he was 17 years-old, which had to be rushed through in a few days so he could compete in the 1970 European Junior Championships, where he promptly won the heavyweight title.

 He then took a bronze medal at the 1972 Olympics before he fell in love and married a French girl. He was living near Avignon and it made sense for him to become a French citizen in 1975 and represent his new country at the 1976 Olympics. This was opposed by Charles Palmer, then President of the International Judo Federation and Chairman of the British Judo Association. He argued that if Angelo was able to do this, many second and third-ranking Japanese would also switch countries.

Angelo missed the 1976 Olympics but by 1977 was competing for France and won the Olympic title in 1980 and a further medal in 1984 when he carried the French flag round the Los Angeles Coliseum. And he has lived in France ever since.

Both these changes of nationalities seemed to me at the time, and subsequently, to be entirely justified.  But subsequently money has become involved, such as in the case of weightlifter Naim Suleymanoglu, who defected in 1986 from Bulgaria, where he lived unhappily in a Turkish enclave. He only represented Turkey at the 1988 Games, when he won the first of three Olympic titles, because his new country agreed to pay Bulgaria $1.25 million, otherwise he would have had to have waited at least a further year.  What was originally a moral decision to defect became less acceptable by the involvement of money.

What faces the IAAF, whose recommendations will clearly influence other sports, is a complex series of issues, when guidelines will have to be carefully drawn up to allow for a variety of different scenarios. I don't envy the working party its task.

** JOHN GOODBODY will cover the 2016 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 13th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

****The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sports Features Communications.

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