Giant on the move
You’ve won the medal, now visit the country
Togo won its first ever Olympic medal on Tuesday, when Benjamin Boukpeti picked up a surprise bronze in the men’s slalom kayak event. Now he says he’s going to visit Togo.
Athletes competing for countries other than the ones they were born in is nothing new. Middle-distance runner Lopez Lomong, who left his village in southern Sudan in 1991 aged six, carried the stars and stripes into the Bird’s Nest stadium at the head of the U.S. team.
Other athletes have switched countries for different reasons, often financial (see here for a Reuters Factbox). Kenyan-born double world steeplechase champion Saif Saaeed Shaheen, for example, emigrated to Qatar for a package including a monthly stipend of $1,000 for life.
But Boukpeti, so far at least, shows no sign of actually wishing to live in the country he competes for. Born in France to a French mother and Togolese father, he has only visited the African country once, as a child, to visit his grandmother. He only decided to compete for Togo when it became clear he was too old to make it into the far more competitive French team.
After winning his medal on Tuesday, he commented that it was time he paid Togo another visit.
Boukpeti is one of five athletes competing under Togo’s flag in Beijing. Four years ago in Athens, he was one of just three.
Lamine Gueye, also born of a French mother and African father — in his case the son of one of Senegal’s most famous politicians — says the odds are stacked against African sportsmen and women.
He became the first Olympic skier from black Africa at the 1984 Sarajevo Games. He was lucky in that he was living in France at the time, relatively close to Alpine skiing resorts, and received training and help from other national teams and equipment suppliers.
But he says that stringent minimum qualification standards in some events exclude athletes from poor countries who simply can’t afford the equipment, training and investment needed to compete at the highest level.
Gueye’s book ‘Skieur Senegalais Cherche Esprit Olympique’ (Senegalese Skier Seeks Olympic Spirit), published this summer, is highly critical of restrictions he says keep athletes from poor countries out of what is billed as the world’s most inclusive sporting event.
So, is it better for poor African countries to be represented by foreign-based athletes than no athletes at all? Or is that kind of representation simply mis-representation for countries where many people struggle just to get by? Should there be stricter rules on who can compete for a country, or should national Olympic Committees in African countries be more selective?
On the other hand, should the International Olympic Committee be putting more of its funding into developing sport in poor countries?
PHOTO: Benjamin Boukpeti of Togo kisses his bronze medal after the men’s kayak single (K1) final at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 12, 2008. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside