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FLAGS OF CONVENIENCE

by Dave Milner | published June 20, 2004

I was nine years old when Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett set into motion the wheels that still have me lacing up my running shoes every day. Until that summer, I didn't realize there were sports other than soccer.

But I remember, as a nine-year-old, lying on my living room floor, eyes glued to the television watching the track and field events at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Coe and Ovett dominated the middle distance races, picking up four of the six available medals in the 800- and 1500-meter events. They made me very proud to be British.

Like many terms that epitomize shiftiness, -- 'piracy,' 'slush fund', 'broad-sided', and 'any port in a storm' spring to mind -- a 'flag of convenience is' a term that has nautical origins. It may only be a piece of bunting lashed to an ensign staff, but the flag which a vessel flies has always been judged as important. Ships, just like individuals, are required by international law to have a nationality, and to have their port of registration inscribed upon the stern. But ship-owners have, for many years, flown flags which happened, for certain reasons - mostly financial or political, to suit their needs.

Now, the adoption of a flag of convenience is an increasing and worrying trend that has spilled over into sports. Into my sport.

Let's face it. Most international sports rely, for their appeal, on the idea of one country beating another. USA vs. Russia at Ice Hockey; England vs. Argentina at Soccer; Australia vs. New Zealand at Rugby. These are great moments in sport, and our identification with our national team is what empowers these moments. Track is no different. By far, the most watched track meets are Olympiads and World Championships, for those very reasons.

Except for the 1984 L.A. Olympics, the record attendance at a track meet on American soil was a USA-Russia duel match in the '60s. Some 81,000 packed into Stanford University's stadium for the '62 clash. Two years later, in the L.A. Coliseum, a crowd of more than 50,000 watched in awe as Gerry Lindgren, a skinny, young high school kid from Spokane, WA, who ran three times a day, spanked the Russians in a classic 10,000m race.

Between 1958 and 1971, a USA-USSR dual match was contested almost every year, with an average attendance of around 40,000 a day - more than any track meet held in the U.S. in the last decade. Of course, these

AIN'T NO NEW THING!

Nations have always taken advantage of political fluidity to gain a leg-up in sports. When Nazi-ruled Germany gobbled up Austria in 1938, it got itself one of the best soccer teams in the world. For the following year and a half, until the outbreak of World War II, the "German" team was composed almost entirely of players born in territories the Germans had invaded.

More recently, in 1984, the barefoot South African runner, Zola Budd , holder - at the time - of the women's 5000m world record, but unable to compete internationally, was able to adopt a new flag of convenience. Aided by a British newspaper, the Daily Mail, and the fact that Budd had discovered her grandfather was English, the runner negotiated the British immigration system with alarming speed.

The British Olympic team harbored hopes of a gold medal in the 3000m, but Budd and US favorite, Mary Decker-Slaney, tangled. Neither runner recovered from the incident. Decker-Slaney hit the deck, and stayed there sobbing. Budd struggled to a 7th place finish.

The modern definition of a "flag of convenience" revolves around commercial expediency and refers to the colors worn by the vessel whose port of registry is in a different country to that of its beneficial ownership (i.e., where the money is).

An "open register" is a less provocative term for the same process, the flag of convenience having acquired something of an unfortunate reputation for a flag used by ship-owners wishing to operate with lower than acceptable standards, looking around for a nation willing to register a ship without asking too many questions. Think Britain taking Zola Budd under their wing without consideration of the consequences.

STEPHEN DOESN'T PLAY ON OUR TEAM ANYMORE!

This summer's Olympic Games in Athens, Greece will be the next major sporting event to be undermined by unusual shifts of nationality. The primary culprit here is a tiny, oil-rich Arab state called Qatar, hungry for success on the international sporting stage, but too impatient to put in place the right infrastructure and wait for normal development to bear fruit.

In the run-up to the last games in Sydney, Qatar paid the impoverished Bulgarian Weightlifting Association a reported $1 million. In return, they were given a whole Olympic-standard team, that yielded medals. The host nation, Australia, could hardly protest with any vehemence. It had also successfully offered financial inducements to several Eastern Europeans weightlifters and track and field athletes to buttress the efforts of their own Olympic team.

At last year's World Track & Field Championships in Paris, the men's 3000m Steeplechase was something of a novelty. Not because of the large, bulky hurdles and water jump. Rather, it was the first time in the event's history that a Kenyan had not been crowned World Champion.

Except, of course, just a few weeks earlier, he had indeed been a Kenyan, named Stephen Cherono. But by the time his big race in Paris came around, he was a Qatari, named Saif Saeed Shaheen (Arabic for "I run where the money is, man!", I assume).

The Qataris had offered Cherono $1,000 a month for life to switch allegiances and change his name. It might seem like small potatoes, but the average annual salary in Kenya is about $1,000.

Cherono's defection was deeply unpopular with the Kenyan Government. President Mwai Kibaki made a public speech before the 2003 World Championships that included the statement "Let us resist the temptation to change our citizenship for financial gains." But some sympathy has been expressed for Shaheen's move, and the switch by others. The previous holder of the 3000 metre steeplechase world record, Kenyan Moses Kiptanui said "We have seen a lot of athletes who were running in the 1968 Olympics or 1974 until maybe last year, some of them, they are living in a very, very sparse state. They are very poor despite the fact they have done great things for this country." One can see how a thousand bucks a month for life, if the sheiks are good for their word, might seem like a no-brainer.

In recent years, a growing number of world-class runners Kenya - whose distance runners are a tremendous source of national pride - have, well, switched teams. Aside from Cherono, Albert Chepkurui (you may now address him as Abdullah Ahmad Hassan) also switched to Qatar, and 800-meter world record holder Wilson Kipketer switched his allegiance to Denmark.

One can forgive Kipketer (at least he didn't change his name to Wilson Johanssen) for competing for Denmark, since he had been based there for many years, and even married a Danish woman. But, chances are, Cherono and Chepkurui had never even heard of Qatar, let alone set foot in the country, before they were poached.

BUT HOW DOES THIS ALL AFFECT THE U.S?

Qatar's progress in recent years has been quite remarkable. They can now boast Asian records at every distance from 1000m to 10,000m. Although, to be fair, four of those eight records (1000m, 1500m, 1 mile, and 2000m) were set by a native Qatari, Mohamed Suleiman.

But until Cherono-gate, the only way that tiny Qatar would outscore USA would be if both were laid down on a Scrabble board! But with Cherono (I refuse to call him by his Qatari name) ranked #3 in the world at the 'chase (and #2 over the flat 3000m) so far this year, and Albert Chepkurui currently ranked #5 in the world over 10,000m, it is conceivable, if not likely, that Qatari runners will out-medal American runners in Athens.

How do the Kenyans feel? Outraged, perhaps justifiably. Imagine if Alan Webb decided that he was going to run for Qatar. The message boards of letsrun.com and Track & Field News would surely short-circuit. Perhaps death threats would follow!

But is it that preposterous an idea? Money talks. Webb knows that. After all, the kid by-passed the NCAA collegiate system - a cornerstone of American athletes' development - to take advantage of a lucrative Nike contract. I'm sure the Qataris would welcome an athlete of Webb's caliber with open arms.

Of course, I'm playing devil's advocate, and it is highly unlikely, amid the current geopolitical climate, that any American athlete would switch teams to one located in the Middle East. But, hopefully, you see my point. There is a tendency not to worry about these things - or the rules and regulations that might prevent them - until they happen to us.

More likely is the possibility that the next U.S. Olympic Trials marathon will be dominated by African-born runners.

Mebrahtom Keflezighi (hereafter referred to as Meb), who finished second at the U.S. Olympic Trials marathon in February, will represent the U.S. in that event in Athens this summer. Meb was born in the small east African country of Eritrea. But Meb, who went to high school in San Diego and attended college at UCLA, has lived in California for as long as most Californians. I think he has certainly earned the right to run for his adopted home country.

Already dozens of Kenyan road running specialists make America their base (there are dozens in Albuquerque, NM). Who's to say some of them won't make things permanent by applying for citizenship? That would certainly shake things up at an Olympic Trials down the road.

But would Americans - can Americans - get behind an athlete they know isn't All-American. I remember, back in 1984, Zola Budd was not terribly well-supported by the British public. She was berated by the merciless British press when she went back to South Africa for lengthy periods to train. Perhaps the British public felt they had been taken advantage of. Personally, I felt bad for the British girl that would have got the other Olympic berth had Zola not flown north.

Of course, political asylum seekers and war refugees are an exception, but I believe there needs to be some kind of residency criterion that is satisfied before an athlete can so easily and swiftly switch international allegiances, and these criteria should be uniform across national Olympic committees and national sporting governing bodies.

It seems ridiculous to me that a runner switching national allegiances from Kenya to Qatar, two countries that could scarcely be more different, would be penalized less than an athlete transferring from, say Belmont University to Vanderbilt, just eight city blocks apart.

Personally, I hope the powers that be put a stop to this kind of thing soon. Otherwise, the countries with the biggest bank balances will soon dominate the Olympics and World Championships, and poorer countries with great traditions in track - like Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, in distance running, and Jamaica, Cuba, and Nigeria in power events - may sadly fade from the international track scene. The Olympics will become little more than a a testosterone-filled G-8 summit, an 8-way contest between the world's financial superpowers.

With the track's image already tarnished thanks to the BALCO scandal, we need all the reasons we can muster to generate excitement about our sport. Track and Field - so amateur (or at least 'shamateur') in nature until recently - is one of the few high-profile sports where money does not dictate the rules and presentation of the sport. Let's not let it dictate which athletes represent which nations.

In stark contrast to all this allegiance-switching, I recall how proud the newly-crowned 100-meter World Champ, Kim Collins - who could easily have earned a spot on the U.S. team - was to give the people of his tiny little Caribbean nation, St. Kitts and Nevis, something to be proud of too. It made me smile. "This is the biggest thing since independence in 1983," he said, about the importance of his 100-meter win in his country of Saint Kitts and Nevis. That's what the Olympics should be about; not which country can write the biggest checks.

TR editor, DAVE MILNER, has lived in the United States since attending college here in 1995. He was born in Leeds (whose beloved soccer team just got dropped from the Premiership). He is a British citizen, so no matter how much he might improve at the marathon, he will never make it to the U.S. Olympic Trials.

 

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