In Qatar, the Olympic team (like many others) is mainly imported



TOKYO – Qatar has a lot of sand but not many beach parties. At least not the kind of exuberance that attracts beach volleyball players in bikinis and short shorts.

However, a lack of tradition has not stopped Qatar from putting together a top-class beach volleyball team. On Saturday, Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan will battle for bronze in the men’s Olympic beach volleyball competition after beating Italy, the 2016 silver medalists.

“Everyone knows Qatar in beach volleyball now,” said Younousse. “It’s on the map.”

Armed with cash, coaches, and state-of-the-art training facilities, Qatar has tried to put together an athletic force worthy of hosting the 2022 World Cup, not to mention other high profile sporting events the small Gulf state is eager to attract.

In Tokyo, Qatar has 16 participants – 13 men and three women – most of them from other countries. These include athletes from Mauritania, Egypt, Sudan and Morocco. To represent Qatar, where Arabic names are common, many have dropped their original names for reasons of competition. But they earn salaries and opportunities that would be impossible in their countries of origin.

“We’re one of the best countries to support the sport, the government helps us achieve things,” said Abderrahman Samba, a 400-meter hurdler who finished fifth in the Tokyo finals. “I don’t think I can give you all the support right now, it will take days to tell.”

Mr Samba grew up in Saudi Arabia but ran for Mauritania, his parents’ homeland, before emerging as a Qatari competitor in 2016, about a year after he moved.

“You helped me achieve my dream,” he said. “You give me everything.”

Mr Younousse, the beach volleyball player, grew up in Senegal. His partner, Mr. Tijan, was Gambier. Both were recruited by Qatari Boy Scouts who combed the beaches of Dakar, the Senegalese capital, in search of long-legged talent to play for national glory – a nation different from their own, of course.

The father of Fares Elbakh, one of Qatar’s two gold medalists in Tokyo, was an Olympic weightlifter for Egypt. His son, better known in weightlifting circles as Meso Hassona, followed in his footsteps, but for a different flag. Last week, Mr. Elbakh set two records in the 96-kilogram class and won the first Olympic gold in Qatar’s history.

Qatar is hardly the only country whose Olympic teams have foreign-born talent. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have also packed their teams full of imported athletes.

Dozens of Chinese-born table tennis players who would not have made it into China’s dominant roster have competed for other nations in the last Olympics. In Tokyo, paddlers from China represented Australia, Japan and Canada, among others. Ni Xialian, a 58-year-old who played for the Chinese national team in the mid-1980s, played for Luxembourg. You lost in the first round.

This week, a sprinter named Emre Zafer Barnes competed for Turkey in the 100-meter run in Tokyo. Six years ago he was a Jamaican named Winston Barnes.

He became a Turkish citizen along with another Jamaican-born sprinter, Jak Ali Harvey, once known as Jacques Montgomery Harvey. Both failed in the preliminary round in Tokyo. Mr Barnes said his income in Turkey was related to his athletic performance.

“There are a lot of athletes in Jamaica who run pretty fast times, close to medal and podium standards,” said Barnes. “It doesn’t leave much room for other guys like me.”

At the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, 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 exchanges athletic training for military service.

Still, the United States is a country that is regularly marked by immigration. In Qatar, which relies heavily on imported labor, almost 90 percent of the population are foreigners, but only a small fraction can hope for citizenship. Athletes are among the exceptions.

An explosion in stadium construction and renovation work in Qatar in preparation for the World Cup was accompanied by the mistreatment of migrant workers, according to international human rights groups. The coronavirus pandemic has made such foreign workers more vulnerable, it is said.

The international athletics federation World Athletics has come out ahead of another form of imported labor: the active recruitment of African runners by richer countries. Sebastian Coe, its president, compared the practice in its extreme forms to human 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) courtesy of Mohammed Suleiman, a Somalia-born 1,500 meter specialist. Qatar 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, the Aspire Academy, accepted its first students with the aim 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 runner of Sudanese descent. Several of Mr. Barshim’s siblings are also athletes.

Golf coaches say wealthy Arab parents are less likely to allow their children to pursue an athletic career. Sport, on the other hand, can be seen as a way out of poverty for children in parts of Africa.

The chance to work with top coaches in fancy facilities is a slight temptation for Qatar. But others fear the country is not playing fair. In 2016, Jama Aden, a Somalia-born running coach for the Qatari team, was arrested and criminally investigated using illegal performance-enhancing substances in his hotel room in Spain. A Qatari runner from Sudan was also arrested by Spanish police.

Months earlier, a Nigerian sprinter for Qatar had been retroactively disqualified from the 2008 Beijing Games after positive doping retests. Another Qatari runner of Nigerian descent was banned for two years in 2012 after testing positive for Clenbuterol.

Mr. Younousse, who made his Olympic debut with a Brazilian-born player in 2016, said Qatar’s support is the only way to reach the top of beach volleyball.

He had been playing basketball in Senegal since he was eight, he said, and US scouts had come to check him out. But basketball was a must for him, and the risk of injury scared him. He preferred another sport.

“Beach volleyball is fun,” he says. “It is thanks to Qatar that I am here.”

Tariq Panja Reporting contributed.


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