Everybody knows it’s an issue – but nobody seems to have been talking about it beyond the confines of social media. Until now, nobody has even seemed willing to address it as a problem. It’s good to know the IAAF’s new Athletics Integrity Unit will have it covered next April…
The rule amendment four years ago has done little to quell the rise of citizenship acquisition. Nations are quick to get round the residency periods imposed – rules are there to be bent, as ever, whichever way necessary. Such rulemaking done on the hoof has only increased the scope for exploitation rather than addressing the real issue and protecting the integrity of competition.
The first thing to stress though is that all those born elsewhere and winning races under another nation’s banner shouldn’t now be lumped together as one homogenous ill of the sport. Circumstances dictate. But the response by some to the justified questioning of the current state of play was unfair and unhelpful to the debate.
To say that the root of discontent is because they’re ‘not ours’ conveniently sidesteps the issue. Accusations of ‘vitriolic nationalism’ are unjust to a majority that appreciate a level playing field where everybody knows where each other stands.
When competition based on the very idea of national representation sees athletes turning out for a country other than the one where they’ve been born and raised for the majority of their lives, then it’s not unreasonable to expect questions being asked.
The topic of clearly defined rules around nationality seems too controversial to touch on. Whether it’s through fear of crossing a line or appearing unsympathetic to a minority’s needs, an ineffective resolution come the new year will only lead to further disillusion with elite competition. The whole competition structure at elite level is based on nationality. If this continues to be manipulated then the structure comes crumbling down.
Perhaps similarly to the noise surrounding intersex athletes and others manipulating the therapeutic use exemption system, the grey area around citizenship acquisition has led to blurred lines being exploited. Countries are using the sporting arena, as ever, as a display of power on the world stage – and these athletes are the latest pawns in a much bigger game.
The offer of a route out of poverty and riches beyond wildest dreams might be a bi-product of athletes switching citizenship. But if this was a leading factor and countries really cared about the individuals involved, they’d do more to solve the root cause of the inequality rather than exploiting it for their own sporting and political gain. Without addressing the cause, the exploitation will only continue.
If the athletes in question weren’t winning these races then of course less attention would be paid to the matter. But then if they weren’t capable of winning such races they wouldn’t be cherry-picked by these nations in the first place. It doesn’t change the underlying fact that nations are sabotaging the integrity of the competition.
But who are we to define the rules? Well, the furore is yet to reach breaking point. But is it right that current solutions suit a few to the detriment of the rest of the sport?
Either we throw open the doors and every nation starts assembling a fantasy team plucked from all corners of the globe, the idea of nationality done away with entirely. Or we look at the issue in a colder, fairer light for all and do what’s best for the majority that play by the spirit in which the rules are meant.
The next steps to reform the sport cannot come soon enough.
Words by Bo James