Mixed views on naturalised athletes

Fadhli Ishak

KUALA LUMPUR: Like it or not, the use of naturalised athletes at major international competitions is here to stay.

Several countries including Qatar, Bahrain, Japan and South Korea fielded naturalised athletes at the recent Asian Games, and most won medals.

With no turning back on the practice, the question now is whether Malaysia, who have also utilised naturalised talent to a limited extent in the past, should look at increasing its use of such athletes.

Former National Sports Council (NSC) director general Datuk Seri Zolkples Embong said he has never been against the use of naturalised athletes.

"The use of naturalised athletes has become a trend now, even Japan are using them while it's quite obvious with the Middle Eastern countries," said Zolkples.

"I have always agreed to the use of naturalised athletes, even when I was the NSC director general but on a few conditions.

"The first is that the athletes in question must have very good potential. In the past, we had used naturalised athletes at the lower levels such as the Sea Games but we should be taking foreign-born athletes who can deliver at the highest level such as the Olympics and World Championships.

"The second condition is that we must not neglect our duty when it comes to developing our own talent, especially in the long run.

"There have been a lot of countries, I do not want to name them, who have used naturalised athletes but have not really achieved much with them."

Zolkples added that the use of naturalised athletes should not be limited to delivering results at the international stage but they must also help with developing local talent.

"They should be able to help with local development by becoming sparring partners etc, but that is not always the case," added Zolkples.

"Take our football league for example. The standard of players (imports) we have brought in is not much different from our locals, in some cases they are even of lower standard than our talents.

"It is not like this in Korea and Japan where they bring in quality players to play in their leagues. This has helped them raise the standard of football in their countries."

Former Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) honorary secretary Datuk Sieh Kok Chi fears the practice of using naturalised players will lead to a bidding war among nations.

"Will naturalised athletes become a competition itself in which countries spend more money to buy better quality athletes until it becomes a question of money and not (producing) athletes?" said Kok Chi.

"This has happened in football where the rich clubs buy the more expensive players and the poor clubs can't afford to buy any.

"Are gold medals that important? There must be (some form) of control."

Bahrain grabbed attention in the Asian Games athletics competition where they finished joint-winners alongside traditional giants China.

All 12 of their gold medals in athletics were won with the help (including relays) of athletes who were either born in Morocco, Kenya, Nigeria and Ethiopia.

Bahrain are well known for the financial rewards they offer their naturalised athletes, which in addition to tough domestic competition in their countries of origin, has tempted many to switch allegiances.

Three of Qatar's four gold in athletics were also won with the help of naturalised athletes. In table tennis, China born duo Jeon Ji-Hee (South Korea) and Yu Mengyu (Singapore) both ended the women's singles event as joint bronze medallists.

Besides individual sports, team sports at the Asian Games also featured a number of naturalised athletes or those with ancestral links such as in basketball and rugby, where physique plays an important role.

Japan for example fielded two Fijians and one Tonga-born player in their rugby sevens squad which finished second to Hong Kong. © New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd