After Ruth Jebet won the 3000-meter steeplechase yesterday, she stood on the top step above fellow Kenya native Hyvin Jepkemoi, received her gold medal from another Kenyan, Paul Tergat, then turned to watch the Bahraini flag ascend to the top of the flagpole. The 19-year-old Jebet was born in Kenya, but she began running internationally for Bahrain in 2013. She earned the tiny gulf nation’s first gold medal the same day that Eunice Kirwa, another runner from Kenya, won them their first silver. Bahrain has a total of three Olympic medals, all earned by East African runners who switched their nationalities to compete for Bahrain.
Athletes competing for nations has been around as long as Games themselves. Even in the ancient Olympics, athletes would occasionally compete for rival city-states. All the modern Olympic Charter requires is that an athlete be a citizen of their new nation, and that they haven’t competed for their old nation for three years (the second requirement can be waived). There are plenty of legitimate reasons why athletes choose to compete for other countries. For example, if you’re a swimmer with Canadian heritage, but you can’t make Team USA, swimming for Canada might be the only way to get to the Olympics. But neither Jebet nor Kirwa have any Bahraini heritage, and they almost certainly switched over because they were paid handsomely.
In 2003, Qatar bought the services of two Kenyan runners, with each runner saying in return they were promised $1,000 a month, even after they retired. Qatar also bought themselves a team of Bulgarian weightlifters and their 2016 team features runners from Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, and Morocco. The Bahraini team has six Ethiopian-born runners, six Kenyan-born runners, thee Nigerians, and no native Bahrainis. Azerbaijan also has a team full of naturalized athletes. Small, oil-rich nations aren’t the only ones to do this, as the United States has a history of rushing prominent Olympians onto their teams as well. Often, athletes cite dysfunction and lack of support from their homelands’ athletics federations. But given Qatar and Bahrain’s habits of paying up for athletes’ allegiances, it’s more likely that Jebet and others are shipping across the Red Sea to collect massive sums of money. Saif Saeed Shaheen, a Kenyan runner who moved to Qatar, said as much to the Guardian in 2003: “Yes, I have moved for the money.”
Before the London Olympics, former IOC president Jacques Rogge admitted that he didn’t love athletes switching countries:
Legally, we can’t stop it but that doesn’t mean we love it. Legally, we can’t stop it because this is a matter of sovereignty. I have reservations in some places about people who have support but still change.
As Rogge also pointed out, the current rules make it incredibly easy to buy Olympic athletes, and there’s nothing the IOC can do to stop it unless they change the rules—opening itself up to a discussion of why an organization itself with a history pay for play is suddenly so concerned about someone else also offering their services to the highest bidder.
For athletes who either can’t make their home country’s Olympic teams or who need the payday, moving to another team seems like a no-brainer. They get paid and they get to compete in the Olympics. It’s hard to get incensed at Bahrain or Qatar when the IOC’s rules regarding transfers are laughably lax. Because of the ineptitude and endemic corruption of federations like Athletics Kenya, as well as the difficulties Olympic athletes (particularly female athletes) have getting paid, the athletes are unquestionably better off for switching over.
If anything, the success of Jebet and other imported athletes is a reminder that the Olympics are, really, about making money. Seeing how much interest (and dollars) pro athletes drew was what helped break down the ridiculous amateurism rules. Making money is right there in the huge financial demands the Olympics makes from bid cities. The ideal of winning a medal for your country out of pure national pride is, for the Olympics, a marketing tool. That isn’t to take away from the pride felt by every competitor at the Olympics. But for whom should they feel that pride will, for now, remain up to them and whichever country they think offers them the most—cash and all.