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How some Middle East countries are 'buying' Olympic medals

CNBC CNBC 17/08/2016 Eric Chemi

© Provided by CNBC If you watched Olympic track and field on Monday, you might have seen Ruth Jebet of Bahrain win the country's first-ever Olympic gold medal, in the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase. 

The NBCSN television announcer described the 19-year-old as running for Bahrain for "financial reasons," because she was born and raised in Kenya, and still lives and trains there. Jebet is just one example of tiny Middle Eastern nations paying big bucks to import top-notch African talent.

Bahrain's Olympic track and field team is composed primarily of runners from Kenya and Ethiopia, along with more from Jamaica, Morocco and Nigeria. The team includes almost no runners born in Bahrain.

Eunice Kirwa won a silver medal in Sunday's women's marathon. She, too, was born in Kenya, but transferred her eligibility to Bahrain. Including past Olympics, every medal ever won by Bahrain in the Olympics was by individuals born in Africa.

This isn't unique to Bahrain, as nearby countries Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Turkey have all been known in the past decade to pay to import elite athletes.The International Association of Athletics Federations records when athletes change their national allegiances for international competition, and many of those athletes go on to run in the Olympics.

This practice of paying athletes to renounce citizenship in their home country to compete for another has led to all kinds of controversy — as well as some plain-old bad imagery.

Here's an anecdote about what happened in 2003 to a 20-year-old Qatari runner named Saif Saaeed Shaheen, as reported by Bidoun magazine:

Until that August, Shaheen had been Stephen Cherono. He was not well-known in Kenya, where there is such a surfeit of world-class runners that few qualify for the national team. Hardly anyone took notice when Cherono switched his citizenship and name in exchange for a lifetime monthly salary of $1,000 and the standard complement of elite trainers and cutting-edge facilities. But then he started winning races. In a surprise victory at the World Championships in Athletics, held in Paris that spring, Shaheen broke the world record for the 3,000-meter steeplechase. After crossing the finish line he fell to his knees and began to cross himself, but an official rushed to stop him; he then took a Qatari flag, wrapped it around his shoulders, and ran a victory lap; when he stepped up to the podium he forgot his new name and had to check the scoreboard. His brother, a runner on the Kenyan team, finished fifth in the same race, and refused to congratulate him.

The story says it all. A huge portion of the imported athletes will actually change their names to sound more Arabic, even if they don't remember it when it matters. They switch citizenship for more money, better facilities and a guaranteed chance to make an Olympic team. In countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, where there is so much talent depth, cracking the country's top three just to qualify for the Olympics is a difficult task.

Then there's the case of Mushir Salem Jawher, running for Bahrain in a marathon in Israel. He said some things to the press about Israel that didn't go over well with the big brass in Bahrain, and as a result got his citizenship revoked. He begged his home country Kenya to take him back, and eventually competed again, this time for Kenya, under his original name Leonard Mucheru.

In 2000, Qatar bought an entire weightlifting team from Bulgaria, which helped it win a bronze medal by Angel Popov, competing under the name Said Saif Asaad.

When you track those medal counts during the Olympics, just remember to take them with a grain of salt. Anything worth competing for is worth paying for.

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through the year 2032.

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