Changing China

Giant on the move

You’ve won the medal, now visit the country

August 13, 2008

Boukpeti with medalTogo 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.

Excuse me?

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


On the other hand, should the International Olympic Committee be putting more of its funding into developing sport in poor countries?

Just wait and see who the actual poor one is!

Posted by rebecca | Report as abusive

Representing your fatherland or motherland is in principle perfectly okay even if you live in a totally different country. A good sportsman indentifies himself with where his heart and culture belong. He represents this pride by representing the country he considers home. Neglecting this right is like assimilating cultures rather than respecting their diversity.

Athletes that represent countries in the return for money are an issue that should be debated not those that represent their roots.

IOC should not invest any money into Africa, it is not the function or the reason of why this commitee exists in the first place.

Posted by Locus publicus | Report as abusive

This is yet anothe revelation of what is wrong with the continent of Africa. May be we can learn a lesson from this and improved upon our infrastructures, and then may be our efforts will pay off and we can be able to compete with the best around the world.

Posted by Ayo | Report as abusive

Poverty can be linked directly with poor performances at the Olympics, or rather, poor countries not presenting many participants who have prospered from being trained via a reasonable amount of funding.

We do need to provide funding for an Olympic committee organised and administrated funding programme.

Posted by The Truth Is... | Report as abusive

If any nation has money to fund Africa’s olympic aspirations, perhaps they should donate money towards food, clothing and shelter first!

I agree with Locus. Athletes of dual-citizenship should be allowed to choose which country they represent. I think it’s awesome that this man has won a small country a medal. I’m sure it brings them great honor.

However, I do have an issue with people being paid to switch countries or professionals (i.e. the USA’s basketball team) entering the Olympics. This sort of activity is not representative of the Olympic Spirit.

Posted by Dawn | Report as abusive

Canadians have been playing for Canada while living elsewhere (i.e. the States) for years. Golfer Mike Weir and basketball star Steve Nash both live in Phoenix, for example. But we watch their careers like they’re our sons and brothers. Which they are.

So bravo Benjamin! I think he could do for Togo athletics what Marylou Reddin did for U.S. womens gymnastics twenty years ago. Let their future begin!

Posted by Keith | Report as abusive

I am a Togo National and proud of what Benjamin Boukpeti has achieved.

His sense of judgment is commendable. He could not join the French team and thought he could be useful for Togo and he proved himself right. What a waste it would have been, had he not been allowed to represent Togo.

Some form of investments in sports, athletics of any sorts in Africa, will help a handful of people who otherwise would see their talents wasted. As they say in Africa, “You cannot fatten the pig on market day”. You need the opportunity to grow.

There are many talents unexploited / undeveloped in Africa because of the economic hardship and political instability in most African countries.

Posted by Samuel Mensan Kwame | Report as abusive

We were all touched with Georgia beat Russia in the beach volleyball, and even more so when the athletes from the two warring nations embraced. Then again, the Russian athletes said it was easier to be friendly, since the “Georgians” were actually Brazilians!


and no one comments on the flaws in the selection process which wouldn’t have allowed him to compete for France?

Posted by JohnD | Report as abusive

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