Saturday, 23 September 2017

International representation is an honour not a right

Athletes these days seem to think that representing a country on the international stage is a right, not an honour; something that they are entitled to do to the point that the country they represent is no longer important.

Dodgy selections by governing bodies, biases and the money associated with representation go some way to explain, if not justify, an individual seeking representation away from their country of birth, while centuries of migration, increased globalisation, marriage, and historical and geopolitical anomalies blur the lines of what exactly nationality is.

Different rules for different sports also complicate matters, things differ from country to country, that's for sure, and each individual's unique set of circumstances mean that it's often difficult to distinguish the black from the white on such matters. The question of one's nationality definitely isn't always clear-cut.

World class athletes from certain countries or regions - distance runners from East Africa, sprint hurdlers from the USA, rugby players from New Zealand, footballers from Brazil, table tennis players from China, cricketers from the Indian Sub-Continent, will find it close to impossible to make their national team, and you can't but feel for them. But we also can't lose sight of the fact that part of their outstanding ability is due to their being a product of the system (formal or informal) which produces so many other world class performers in their chosen discipline; they benefit every day from the raised bar such high standards and competition for places produces.

So a Kenyan distance runner, born in Kenya and training all their lives in Kenya will always be Kenyan, irrespective of who pays their bills. (Kenyan-born Vivian Jemutai, now known as Yasemin Can, summed the whole farce up nicely when she said in an interview after winning a European title for Turkey, that she "would also be very happy if I could earn gold for my home country Kenya one day."  Turkey, Barain, etc. appear to be a stepping stone to proper international representation it seems - some slap in the face for the not insignificant investment the Turkish government have undoubtedly put into her 'development'.

The Turks and Bahrainis are not the first to exploit the lax rules surrounding nationality, nor indeed the first to exploit the Africans, but that's a whole other story. In 2003 Commonwealth steeplechase champion Stephen Cherono of Kenya became Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar. Cherono was, at the time, the fastest in the world and his place in the Kenyan team was not in question. While initial rumours that he and fellow countryman Albert Chepkurui, who became Ahmad Hassan Abdullah, received $1 million for the switch were denied by the athletes, they did say that they were to receive $1000 per month for the rest of their lives. Cherono went on to win the 2003 and 2005 World Championships and break the world record for his adopted country. And all this from the comfort of his home in Iten, Kenya.

The IAAF, at the time, made an attempt to clamp down on the widescale purchase of athletes but, while Turkey and Bahrain have replaced Qatar as the world's leading market for surplus athletes, the problem remains, more than a decade on.

And that's before we go anywhere near Rugby or Cricket where it seems that you can just pinpoint a point on a map and, subject to demand, sign up for their 'national' team.


This August I was seated in the upper tier of the Olympic Stadium in London when the British men's sprint relay team received their World Championship medals. The atmosphere around me was electric. Everyone was on their feet, and, as the Union Jack was raised, even my mum, sitting beside me and relishing her first experience of live athletics at this level, was singing 'God Save the Queen' at the top of her voice.

I could see how such an occasion could raise goose bumps, and could even bring a tear to the eye, how the young hearts of Adam, Chijindu, Danny and Nethaneel must have been bursting with pride, honour and glory. They will, no doubt, have dreamed of this moment. Imagined it in their minds thousands of times. Replayed it over and over.

I could see how this was a moment to be cherished.

If you are British.

I, meanwhile, felt nothing.

This wasn't my flag, my country, my national anthem.

As someone who has never so much as tasted Guinness, who struggles to put together a sentence as Gaeilge, who never went to an Irish dancing class and who has never been to a GAA match, some might argue that on the scale of Irish patriotism I sit somewhere between the late Ian Paisley and the aforementioned God-saved Queen herself.

But I can't pretend to be something that I'm not. And despite spending half of my adult life in the UK, I am not (and never will be) anything but Irish.

And in that moment, the whole argument of national representation seemed crystal clear for me. If you're standing on the top step of that rostrum, the anthem of the country who's colours you're wearing blaring out over the Tannoy, and your heart is not bursting with pride, honour and glory, the hairs on the back of your neck are not standing to dutiful attention, then should you even be there? If there's a flag you'd prefer to see raised, a different country you aspire to represent, a nation you one day want to be good enough to compete for, have you missed the whole point of international sport?

Of course it's not that simple; it never is.

But representing a country should never be a question of convenience. Or indeed, money.

And it should never, ever be about entitlement. Because representing your country, wherever that might be, is an honour, not a right.

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