The road to Athens – Flag of convenience

The recent inclusion of American journeyman runner Malachi Davis in the British Olympic team has once more highlighted the questionable practice of athletes foregoing their country of birth in order to compete for another nation.

A common occurrence in other sports such as football, rugby, cricket and tennis, this cynical if not mercenary phenomenon somewhat rankles with the Olympic principle. The most controversial case in Britain over the last 20 years was that of Zola Budd, who gained British citizenship to run at the 1984 Olympics, while her native South Africa was still excluded. She was involved in a tripping incident with Mary Decker and never fulfilled her early promise. Conversely, Fiona May gave up her place on the British team to compete in the long jump for Italy after marrying an Italian. She progressed to become world champion.

Other prominent cases include the Moroccan Khalid Khannouchi, who became marathon world record-holder, representing the USA. Kenyan 3,000m steeplechase world champion Stephen Cherono transformed himself into Saif Saaeed Shaheen running for Quatar and Wilson Kipketer, also Kenyan and 800m world record-holder, who has been turning out for Denmark since 1995.

Portugal, too, has a skeleton in the cupboard in the shape of Francis Obikwelu. The Nigerian, now living in Madrid, is Portuguese 100m and 200m champion and a medal hope in Athens. Yet the former world junior champion at both sprint distances ran for Nigeria at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000. Obikwelu stayed on in Portugal illegally after the World Junior Championships in 1994 and worked in construction in the Algarve for some time before being spotted by Sporting, who put his career back on track. In his case, therefore, there is some justification for adopting Portuguese colours. Others are following the call of big money, which some countries are only too willing to supply in their misguided quest for Olympic glory.