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The fat issue

The fat issue

When will the GCC realize that buying Olympic athletes and football clubs won’t help curb the region’s growing obesity problem?

October 12, 2008 12:27 by

Dana El-Baltaji


It’s official: the GCC is set on being a sporting hub. Each nation is trying desperately to outdo the other with sporting venues, teams, athletes and club associations. It explains why Bahrain spent so much money on Formula One, why Qatar was bidding for the 2016 Olympics (but lost due to the kingdom’s suggestion of hosting the event in October), why Dubai has the Dubai Tennis Open, the World Cup (the world’s richest horse race), Dubai Sports City, is the location of the International Cricket Council, and why Abu Dhabi’s high profile acquisition of Manchester City for $384.4 million has caused the world’s richest football league to take notice of the financially capable, seemingly unstoppable GCC.

While diversification is one reason, ego is another. Take the example of Qatar, a relatively small GCC nation with a tiny population of Qatari nationals (almost 744,000 at last count). With the establishment of a sports academy called Aspire in 2004—that aims to establish a sports culture in the nation—Qatar hopes to encourage its citizens to embrace sports. Aspire has only been in operation for four years, so it hasn’t had time to churn out athletes.

In the meantime, however, Qatar has bought several foreign athletes. In spite of the nation’s highly protective laws preventing the naturalization of foreigners, it has granted them citizenship. They’ve also been given new names: Kenyans Stephen Cherono and Albert Chepkurui are now Saif Saaeed Shaheen and Abdullah Ahma Hassan respectively; Bulgarian born Angel Popov is now Said Saif Asaad. When Kenyan born Abdullah was asked why he moved to the Qatari Olympic team, he replied: “Payment, I guess.”

In return for Qatar’s kindness, its citizenship and cash, athletes are expected to win medals. Gold medals bring prestige and publicity. Ironically, they didn’t get any at the 2008 Olympics.

But Bahrain did. Like Qatar, Bahrain buys foreign athletes, and it struck gold with Moroccan born Rashid Ramzi. “I didn’t believe in my wildest dreams that I’d be Olympic champion,” he said after winning his medal. “But the dream didn’t come from nothing. I had to work hard to achieve it.”

That is exactly the point some officials are trying to make. Gold medals won by foreign athletes, especially those hosted by nations with minimal sports histories and negligible sports cultures, are not representative of a nation’s dedication to sports.

Ali Y. Husain, treasurer of Kuwait’s Olympic Committee, shuns the entire process of buying athletes from abroad, claiming to prefer bronze medals won by Kuwaitis instead of gold medals won by bought athletes. His strategy is simple: “It’s Kuwaitis only for Kuwait.”

In 2005, the International Association of Athletes Federations (IAAF) approved a clause forcing all bought athletes to honor a three-year waiting period after being naturalized by their host countries. The three-year period can be reduced to one year only if the athletes’ home countries approve of the shifts. Previously, players were allowed to represent their host countries as soon as their deals were complete. With the new law in place, the IAAF hoped to curb what some call, “the Qatari/Bahraini defection.”

Nations such as Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE have been facing criticism for poaching athletes, but they are not alone. Many countries, including those with established sports cultures like the UK and the US poach athletes. However, they have many athletes of their own. The Gulf does not.

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