In Qatar, the Olympic Team (Like Much Else) Is Mostly Imported
TOKYO – There is a lot of sand in Qatar but not a lot of beach parties. At least not the kind of party that tends to attract beach volleyball players, in bikinis and short shorts.
However, the lack of tradition hasn’t stopped Qatar from building a top-level beach volleyball team. On Saturday, Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan will fight for bronze in the men’s Olympic beach volleyball competition, after beating 2016 silver medalist Italy on the way.
“Everyone now knows Qatar in beach volleyball,” said Younousse. “It’s on the map.”
Armed with cash, state-of-the-art coaches and training facilities, Qatar attempted to muster athletic strength worthy of hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, let alone others. high-profile sporting events that the tiny Gulf state is keen to attract.
In Tokyo, Qatar fielded 16 competitors – 13 men and three women – most of whom were drafted from other countries. These are athletes from Mauritania, Egypt, Sudan and Morocco. To represent Qatar, where Arabic names are common, many have abandoned their original names for competition. But they earn wages and opportunities that would be impossible in their home country.
“We are one of the best countries to support sport, the government supports us to achieve things,” said Abderrahman Samba, a 400-meter hurdler who placed fifth in the final in Tokyo. “I don’t think I can tell you all the support now, it will take days to tell.”
Mr Samba grew up in Saudi Arabia but ran for Mauritania, his parents’ homeland, before becoming a Qatari competitor in 2016, about a year after moving there.
“They helped me make my dream come true,” he said. “They give me everything.
Mr. Younousse, the beach volleyball player, grew up in Senegal. His partner, Mr. Tijan, was Gambian. Both were recruited by Qatari scouts who roamed the beaches of Dakar, the Senegalese capital, in search of leggy talent to play for national glory – a nation, admittedly, other than their own.
The father of Fares Elbakh, one of Qatar’s two gold medalists in Tokyo, was an Egyptian weightlifter. His son, better known in weightlifting circles as Meso Hassona, followed in his footsteps, but for another flag. Last week, Mr. Elbakh set two records in the 96 kilogram division and won the first Olympic gold medal in Qatari history.
Qatar is far from the only country whose Olympic teams boast foreign-born talent. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have also filled their teams with imported athletes.
Dozens of Chinese-born table tennis players, who reportedly failed to make it to China’s dominant teams, competed for other nations in the recent Olympics. In Tokyo, paddlers from China represented Australia, Japan and Canada, among other countries. Ni Xialian, a 58-year-old player who was part of the Chinese national team in the mid-1980s, played for Luxembourg. She lost in the first round.
This week, a sprinter named Emre Zafer Barnes competed for Turkey in the 100-meter qualifiers in Tokyo. Six years ago he was a Jamaican named Winston Barnes.
He became a Turkish national with fellow Jamaican-born sprinter Jak Ali Harvey, formerly known as Jacques Montgomery Harvey. The two failed to get out of the preliminary rounds in Tokyo. Mr Barnes said his income in Turkey was linked to his athletic performance.
“In Jamaica, you know, you have a lot of athletes running pretty quick times, close to the medal, to the podium,” Mr. Barnes said. “It doesn’t leave a lot of room for other guys like me.”
At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, nearly 50 foreign-born athletes competed for the United States and eight won medals. Four runners from Kenya were recruits in a US Army program that trades athletic training for military service.
Yet the United States is a country regularly supported by immigration. In Qatar, which relies heavily on imported labor, nearly 90 percent of residents are foreigners, but only a small number can hope to obtain citizenship. Athletes are among the exceptions.
An explosion in construction and renovation of stadiums in Qatar ahead of the World Cup has been accompanied by abuse of migrant workers, according to international human rights groups. The coronavirus pandemic has made these foreign workers more vulnerable, they say.
International athletics governing body World Athletics has warned of another form of imported labor: the active enlistment of African runners by richer countries. Sebastian Coe, its president, equated the practice, in its extreme forms, with trafficking.
Qatar, which has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, started recruiting foreign athletes a long time ago. In 1992, the country won its first Olympic medal (bronze) thanks to Mohammed Suleiman, a 1,500-meter specialist born in Somalia. Qatar has also recruited two of its brothers. The country’s next medal came eight years later, from a weightlifter from Bulgaria.
In 2008, a government-funded institution, Aspire Academy, welcomed its first group of students, with the goal of becoming “the world’s leading sports academy in the development of young athletes”.
One of the stars of the academy is Mutaz Essa Barshim, a high jumper who shared a heartwarming gold medal with an Italian in Tokyo. He was born and raised in Qatar, but his father was a Sudanese-born walker. Several of Mr. Barshim’s siblings are also athletes.
Gulf coaches say wealthy Arab parents are less likely to allow their children to pursue sports careers. On the other hand, sport can be seen as a way out of poverty for children in some parts of Africa.
A chance to work with the best coaches in luxury facilities is an easy lure for Qatar. But others fear the country is not playing fair. In 2016, Jama Aden, a Somali-born running coach for the Qatari team, was arrested with illegal performance-enhancing drugs in his bedroom. hotel in Spain and was the subject of a criminal investigation. A Qatari runner from Sudan was also arrested by Spanish police.
A few months earlier, a Nigerian-born sprinter for Qatar was retroactively disqualified from the 2008 Games in Beijing after new doping tests came back positive. Another Qatari runner of Nigerian descent was suspended for two years in 2012 after testing positive for clenbuterol.
Mr Younousse, who made his Olympic debut in 2016 with a Brazilian-born player, said support from Qatar was the only way for him to have been able to reach the top echelons of beach volleyball.
He had been playing basketball in Senegal since he was 8, he said, and American boy scouts had come to check it out. But basketball was a duty for him, and the risk of injury frightened him. He preferred another sport.
“Beach volleyball is fun,” he said. “It’s thanks to Qatar that I’m here.
Tariq Panja contributed reports.
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