For Sale: One elite athlete, lightly used. Will swap citizenship, move to your country and even marry to compete for your Olympic team if the price is right. (Note: All marriage proposals must include a photo.)
When it comes to the Olympics, a lot more mercenaries — er, athletes — change allegiances than you'd think.
Here at the Rio Games, Bahrain's delegation of 30 athletes includes exactly four Bahraini natives. Twenty-three of Qatar's 39 athletes were born somewhere else. Its handball team of 14 players includes 11 foreign-borns, including Marko Bagaric, who helped lead the Qataris to an upset win over Croatia, the land of his birth.
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He felt bad for Croatia but got over it soon enough.
"The worst feeling was during the national anthem," Bagaric said. "Ah, but what can I do?"
While oil-rich, Gulf states game the system most often, they're hardly the only nations that seek to flip athletes like used-car dealers. The 550-plus strong U.S. delegation includes 46 athletes — about 8 percent — born elsewhere. China is so dominant in table tennis that one in five of the 140 competitors spread across 55 teams were born in the world's most populous nation.
The reasons for what noted Olympic historian David Wallechinsky calls a "braun drain" and others a "passport swap" or "transfer of allegiance" are varied. In some cases, like China's table-tennis players, American basketball and baseball athletes, or Kenya's long-distance runners, the talent pool at home is so deep that reserves with no chance to make the first team are still better than any other country's best.
Some athletes take advantage of their ancestry and others gain citizenship through marriage or relocation. But the International Olympic Committee rules governing such moves are so laughably lax that mercenaries in the games are every bit as prominent as in other big-time, big-money sports like soccer. All such moves require is agreement by both nations' Olympic committees, some of that consensus no doubt influenced by cash.
Qatar, for example, bought the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team in 2000 for a reported $1 million, awarding citizenship and new names to all eight athletes involved.
But only one of them, Angel Popov — renamed Said Saif Assad just in time for the Sydney Games — returned to his new home with a bronze medal. That left some Qataris wondering whether the money would have been better spent making sure Bulgaria's notorious doping program was included in the deal.
Undaunted, the Qataris bought Kenyan long-distance runners Stephen Cherono and Albert Chepkurui three years later. That didn't work out much better.
"Nation shopping," yet another name for the practice, has become prevalent enough in track and field competitions that when the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) convenes Saturday, finding a way to tighten up the eligibility for the movement of athletes is near the top of their agenda.
Soccer's worldwide governing body, FIFA, may be the most corrupt outfit in sports, but their rules on "nation shopping" are both simple and effective: Once an athlete has played for a country in an internationally sanctioned tournament at the senior level, he's bound to that country for life. No exceptions.
Both Wallechinsky and Bill Mallon, a historian and statistician with the U.S. Olympic Committee, would like to see the IOC adopt a similar measure. Wallechinsky also thinks a limit on foreign-born athletes on each national team, or the number allowed to compete in any given sport, might work as well.
Mallon also said removing the exception allowing the national Olympic committees involved to override the rule already on the IOC books might turn the trick. It currently states athletes can switch countries "provided at least three years have passed since the competitor last represented his former country."
"I think you could make very specific exceptions, for examples, like marriages," he said.
But a moment later, Mallon pulls up a file on his computer screen and notes that of the 952 married couples that have competed in the games over the years, 190 have involved a couple where the husband or wife hails from a different country.
He had no idea what the divorce rate for the group might be. But it seems someone who would walk away from his or her country wouldn't find it much harder to walk out on a spouse.