21 Jul 2012

Winners and losers in the race for athletics talent

The tabloids make a fuss about “plastic Brits” but Team GB is not alone in spreading its net widely. Ahead of London 2012, Channel 4 News reveals the winners and losers in the talent recruitment race.

The winners and losers in the rece to recruit foriegn born track and field stars

Earlier this year, Team GB athlete Tiffany Porter was urged to sing God Save the Queen by tabloid journalists, sceptical about the US-born athlete’s selection as captain at the World Indoor Athletics Championship in Istanbul.

Her teammates leapt to her defence, while UK Athletics Head Coach Charles van Commenee said her selection had been to make a statement that the “New Brits” were welcome.

In the UK the fuss over so-called “plastic Brits” is a recurring story, with the more controversial selection of South African-born Zola Budd for the 1984 British team making some uneasy about more recent recruits.

But with London 2012 upon us, nationality switches amongst track and field athletes have never been more popular. Since the last games in Beijing, 119 athletes have changed their allegiance.

Data compiled by Channel 4 News, based on the International Association of Athletics Federations’ figures, show the countries that are leading the recruitment drive and the ones who are losing their home-grown talent to others, where pockets are deeper or competition less fierce.

Big names

The USA leads both tables with 24 Americans seeking pastures new and 15 going the other way.

Like the USA, France and Great Britain are represented in the top five countries of origin for nationality switches and destinations. Other countries, particularly Kenya and Ethiopia, are losing many athletes but not replacing them with talent from overseas.

Kenya lost five athletes between the Beijing and London games to Turkey, France and the USA. The big names behind the figures included Bernard Lagat, who has won Olympic medals for the country of his birth. He has yet to medal for his adopted USA.

Ethiopia, which along with Kenya will dominate the long distance running events, has suffered a similar misfortune, losing athletes to the USA, Switzerland and Belgium. It will hope that fresh home-grown talent can make up for the athletes it has lost in London 2012.

Popular destinations

Where there are losers, there are winners, and countries that are gaining athletes from other countries include Italy, Turkey, Spain and Belgium. Switzerland, Israel and Ireland are also proving popular destinations.

Italy has recruited 10 athletes from 10 different countries since 2008, while only losing one.

Between the Athens and Beijing Olympics, it only recruited one athlete from overseas, so this represents a significant increase.

Five athletes come from Africa, while the sixth came from Bahrain but was born in Morocco.

Only one, the former Bahraini athlete Nadia Ejjafini, will appear in London. Several of the other new recruits are still juniors and competed at the recent Junior World Championships.

Role model for Turkish women - former Ethiopian runner Elvan Abeylegesse (Getty)

Soft diplomacy

Another attractive destination for athletes is Turkey, a country that currently has a high profile as a result of its diplomacy efforts in the Middle East. Some believe that its successful recruitment of overseas athletes is an attempt in “soft diplomacy”.

Andrew Finkel, an expert in the politics and culture of the Mediterranean nation, said Turkey is known to treat its overseas recruits well.

The author of the book Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know, told Channel 4 News the first well-known athlete from overseas to compete for Turkey was a weightlifter in the 1980s.

In track and field, he said, the phenomenon is more recent, with the former Ethiopian athlete and Beijing sliver medallist at 10,000, Elvan Abeylegesse, deciding to represent Turkey in 2001 with the support of a Turkish-based athletics club.

“She was getting a salary, her parents a stipend,” said Mr Finkel. “They make it attractive for athletes in Turkey.”


Abeylegesse has not competed since 2010 and will not be in London, but she has blazed a trail that other African athletes have followed. Four of the five overseas athletes who have chosen to represent Turkey are from Kenya.

Former Polat Kemboi Arikan and Tarik Langat Akdag take their place in the distance events alongside their former Kenyan teammates.

Mr Finkel said that Turkey has welcomed overseas talent in sport and other fields for centuries. “There has always been of tradition in Turkey of welcoming the best and the bravest.”

Turkey will hope that the new recruits to the Turkish cause will inspire the nation like Abeylegesse, whose success has encouraged more Turkish-born women into the sport, Mr Finkel reveals.

But now they have even more of an incentive because the country is bidding for an Olympic Games for a fifth time.

“They clearly regard the Olympics as something that brings prestige to Turkey,” said Mr Finkel.