African-born athletes dominate at 2018 Asia Games

There doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to the talent drain from African countries in recent years as individuals from these nations adopt other countries—mostly due to financial strain, lack of opportunities, and living conditions back home. Just after France’s world cup win saw a debate arise on identity in global times, the athletics event of the 2018 Asian Games had African-born athletes winning medals for their adopted Asian countries in Jakarta, Indonesia which concluded yesterday.

African-born athletes representing the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain dominated the final day of the 2018 Asian Games as medals were won across 11 different sports on the 12th day of action. All 10 individual athletics gold won by Bahrain were earned by runners born on the African continent – Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Morocco. Of the two gold-winning relay teams, all but two athletes were also of African origin.

Edidiong Odiong, who was born in Nigeria but switched allegiance to Bahrain two years ago, completed the sprint triple crown by winning the women’s 4×100 metres relay alongside her teammates Iman Essa and Salwa Naser—who were also both born in Nigeria—and Hajar Alkhaldi at the Gelora Bung Karno Main Stadium. The former African junior champion beat India’s Dutee Chand twice in three days to win the women’s 100m and 200m gold, claiming the prestigious sprint double at the Asian Games. In the 100m, the 21-year-old won in 11.30secs to become Asia’s fastest woman while she clocked 22.96secs in the 200m.

Odiong was one of the talented young athletes discovered and groomed by the defunct Cross River Athletics Grassroots Development Initiative. She was regarded as a great asset for Nigeria in the women’s 400m and 4x400m events after representing the country at the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships in Oregon. However, in 2015, she joined a growing list of Nigerian athletes who ditched their country for oil-rich Bahrain and have excelled representing their adopted nation.

Nigerian-born Femi Ogunode, centre, represented Qatar at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. He won the 100-metre race in an Asian record time of 9.93 seconds. Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP

Salwa Eid Naser formerly Ebelechukwu Agbapuonwu, also won the women’s 400m gold medal for Bahrain at the Games after finishing in 50.09secs to set a new Games record in the event. The 20-year-old recently set a new Asian record in the women’s 400m in July at the Monaco Diamond League. The achievement made her the youngest ever woman to reach the podium in the 400m at the IAAF World Championships. She also won gold at the 2015 World Youth Championships and the 2015 Military World Games for her adopted nation.

Bahrain’s Kenyan-born world champion Rose Chelimo overcame Jakarta’s heat to win the women’s marathon in two hours, 34 minutes and 51 seconds. Yavi Winfred, a Kenyan who is representing Bahrain won gold in women’s 3000m steeplechase event at the 18th Asian Games. The athlete shifted her allegiance to Bahrain in 2014, and has represented her adopted country in the 2017 World Championship that took place in London.

But Bahrain were not the only ones to benefit from naturalised Africans in Jakarta. Qatar had a silver medal in the men’s 100m after Nigerian-born Tosin Ogunode finished in 10secs. Ogunode followed the footsteps of his brother Femi Ogunode who won two gold medals representing Qatar at the 2010 Asian Games. He made his debut at the start of the 2014 season when he set an Asian indoor record of 6.50secs in the 60m event at the Northern Arizona University in the United States.

Qatar’s Hassan Abdalelah finished men’s 400m in 44.89 seconds. Abdalelah was also recruited from Sudan at a young age. His name was changed to an Arabic one as he gained eligibility to represent Qatar in February 2015.

Other athletes of Nigerian descent, who have switched nationalities are Precious Moses, now known as Moussa Ali Issa, Iman Isa Jassim, Basira Sharifa Nasir (Lolade Shodiya), and Aminat Yusuf Jamal. They now compete for Bahrain. Bahrain’s sprints coach John Obeya, who also left Nigeria for the oil-rich Asian country in 2010 after the World Youth Championships in Italy trains Naser, Abbas and Odiong.

The prominence of foreign-born athletes amongst Bahrain’s team has not gone unnoticed, with many on social media claiming their presence undermines the Games as a celebration of Asia, while others suggest it brings the whole event into disrepute.

According to an Indian Express report, this seems to be a larger part of the plan by Qatar and Bahrain. Citing IAAF stats, it reports that there have been 21 requests of Kenyans wanting to move to Bahrain since 2012 along with 18 cases of Ethiopians. In total, 48 African athletes have moved to Bahrain between 2012 and 2017 and three have moved to Qatar.

This trend has not gone unnoticed by IAAF. “It has become abundantly clear with regular multiple transfer of athletes, especially from Africa, that the present rules are no longer fit for purpose,” IAAF president Seb Coe was quoted by Indian Expressas saying. “Ideally, the vest that you start your international career with is the vest you should end your international career with. With a few exceptions,” the IAAF president said.

The IAAF changed a few rules around nationality earlier this year. A waiting period of at least three years before an athlete moves to another country to represent them is one among the changed rules. Rules on naturalising athletes vary between countries, but Bahrain officials have defended their recruiting methods, citing the vast resources they pour into athletes’ training.