Qatar lures athletes with citizenship, cash
Country importing athletes to help win medals at Asian Games
Updated: 6:00 p.m. ET Dec. 8, 2006
DOHA, Qatar - Three Qatari men sit in the stands at the Asian Games, chatting about athletes representing their country. One says to the others: “Qatari sportswoman, Chen Zhu.”
The three burst into laughter.
A chess player, the Chinese-born Chen is not the only foreigner representing Qatar in the Asian Games, being held for the first time in an Arab country.
More than a dozen athletes who have traded their talent for citizenship and cash from this oil-rich Gulf state are competing here under the flag of Qatar, the host nation.
So far only one of them has won a medal for Qatar, which had three silver and two bronze medals overall in the first six days of competition.
Salem Jaber, formerly known as Yani Marchokov, on Wednesday won the silver medal for Qatar in the heaviest weightlifting division.
When asked by reporters to bring the medalist for an interview, one of his handlers replied that Jaber “can only speak Bulgarian and some Russian.” Told that there is a translator from Russian to English, the organizer later said the weightlifter did not want to speak.
Qatar paid $1 million to the Bulgarian weightlifting federation for eight athletes in 1999, according to reports. The original deal was that the weightlifters were to keep their given names. But most were given Arabic names almost immediately.
It’s not only Bulgarian and Chinese. There are handfuls of athletes from Kenya, as well as a soccer player from Uruguay, playing for Qatar.
But such imports are not new for the Gulf state.
The country won its first major medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics courtesy of Somali-born runner Mohammed Suleiman, who came third in the 1,500 meters.
Weightlifter Saif Saeed Asaad, formerly known as Angel Popov, won the second bronze medal for Qatar at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“I came here to win a medal. It doesn’t matter what medal. I hope this will make me a champion for all the youth of Qatar,” he said at the time.
Asaad did not win a medal in Doha. And Saif Saeed Shaheen, the world record holder in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, withdrew because of an Achilles tendon injury. Shaheen was born in Kenya but has won two world championship titles for Qatar.
The International Association of Athletics Federation, at its council meeting in Doha last year, ruled that athletes must wait for three years from the time they were granted a citizenship to represent an adopted country.
Under the old rules, an athlete could represent compete for an adopted homeland three years after competing for another, regardless of when the new passport was issued.
“The issue of citizenship is a legal and sovereign right for countries and this does not only happen in Asia but all over the world,” said Sheik Ahmed al-Fahd Al Sabah, president of the Olympic Council of Asia. “It is legal and sovereign as long as it is done according to the laws of concerned union.
“It is the sovereign right of every country to give citizenship to whoever they want.”
Among the other Africa-born athletes competing under new flags are middle distance runner Daham Najam Bashair, formerly known as David Nyaga, James C’Kurui and long distance runner Mubarak Hassan Shami, formerly known as Richard Yatich.
Asked whether the Asian Games interferes in citizenship matters, Ahmed Abdulla Al Khulaifi, the Doha organizing committee deputy director general, said it was not for him to judge.
“We cannot interfere in such matters because it has specialized sides such as the Olympic Council of Asia or the Olympic committees of each country,” he said.
A Qatari official said they have no ministry of sports and they have no lists of foreigners given citizenship.
More than 60 percent of Qatar’s 744,000 population are foreigners, mostly from South Asia and the Philippines. Many people come here looking for jobs in a country that has one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
“We are proud that Doha is a mixture of all nationalities. There are people who have been living here for a long time and they work and live with their families,” Al Khulaifi said. “We consider them brothers and family, and we are proud of them because they are a major part of the society.”
Qatar is not alone in importing foreign athletes.
Bahrain and Lebanon are known to have given citizenship to potential athletes and Singapore has recruited in China. Some Western countries have done it for decades.
Still, there are athletes who refuse to exchange their citizenship for any price.
Iran’s best weightlifter, Hossein Rezazadeh, declined a Turkish offer of $20,000 a month, a luxury villa and a reward of $10 million to win Turkey a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Rezazadeh won the gold medal in Doha, holding the winning lift above his head for a full 10 seconds with a big grin, and a nod to the Iranian flag.
© 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.