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Have passport, will compete - Asia's winning imports By Peter Auf der Heyde

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dpa German Press Agency
Published: Sunday December 10, 2006

By Peter Auf der Heyde, Doha, Qatar- Question: What do a German swimming champion, an American college basketball player, an Australian professional surfing champion and a Jamaican world championship medallist have in common? Answer: They are all competing at the 15th Asian Games in the Qatar capital Doha.

Rafd Zyad Almasri was born in the German town of Clausthal- Zellerfeld and has three gold medals from the German swimming championships.

His parents emigrated from Syria to Germany 40 years ago and as a result Almasri qualified for a Syrian passport, which he made good use of on Monday. He won the 50m freestyle, giving Syria only their second gold medal-ever at the Asian Games swimming competition.

Eric McArthur, who is competing in the basketball competition for Japan, played for UC Santa Barbara in California before moving to the Far East, where he first played for NKK Sea Hawks, before moving to other clubs.

Peter Alexander Gibbs was the Australian professional surfing champion in 1993 and 1994, but has since changed sports and is a member of the Hong Kong rugby sevens team at the Asian Games.

Brandon Simpson was born and studied in America but ran competitively for Jamaica, picking up three medals in the 4x400m relays at the 2001, 2003 and 2005 world championships. He then switched allegiance to Bahrain and became eligible for their national team in September this year.

Almasri, McArthur, Gibbs and Simpson are just four of dozens of athletes who are competing at the Asian Games for countries other than the those of their birth.

Some of the countries have not steered clear of controversy and the hosts Qatar and Bahrain, in particular, have been heavily criticised for luring African runners into the desert by paying them huge amounts of money.

Their investment though has paid off handsomely and just four days into the athletics competition at the Asian Games, African runners have raked in their fair share of medals.

The men's 10,000m saw three Kenyan-born runners finish in the top three positions, while in the gold and silver medals in the marathon and the 3,000m steeplechase also went to Kenyan-born runners.

Even the women's events have had an African winner with Ethiopian Zenebech Tola Kotu winning the 800m for Bahrain as Maryam Yusuf Jamal.

And it is not just in the athletics competition that the two countries are making good use of their imports. The Qatari basketball and football teams are medal contenders and both have a number of foreign-born players.

Needless to say, luring players with financial rewards has earned Qatar and Bahrain some criticism.

Jordan's basketball coach Mario Palma, whose side lost 71-64 to Qatar, complained afterwards. "This is not a Qatar team. They have four or five guys from Senegal and two players from Jordan. They should be playing for me. They also have an Egyptian. How can you do that, this is not right."

Bangladesh football coach Bayazid Alam Nipu said that there should be a general rule that when any team represents their country the players should be from that country by birth.

"Unfortunately, some countries fail to do that as they feel they do not have enough good athletes. But we do not do that. We are proud that all players of our country are citizens because of their birth."

Marathon winner Hassan Mubarak Shami, who ran for Qatar, but was formerly known as the Kenyan Richard Yatich, says he left Kenya because he did not have as many chances to run there. "Everybody in Kenya is running, everyone wants gold. If I was in Kenya, maybe I would not be able to run for the country."

Bahrain's Mubarek Tareq Salem (formerly Kenyan Denis Kipkirui Keter), who won the steeplechase, agrees with his former team-mate. "I feel good about running for Bahrain. Unlike Kenya, we get many chances of competing internationally."

Of course not all athletes that have changed nationalities did so for money.

McArthur, for instance, has been living in Japan for 16 years, has a Japanese wife and says he is as Japanese as the other players on his team. "I just have darker skin. If they think something, I think the same thing. If they know something, I know basically the same thing too."

His only regret is not having made himself available for the Japanese side much earlier. "This is a lot of fun. I wish I had done this a few years earlier. But I had a family to take care of with three young kids and some other things to take care of at home.

"That was my priority at that time. Now I have everything straightened out and hopefully I can do this for a couple more years."

Shanghai-born professional chess player Chen Zu, who won a bronze medal for the host country in the rapid chess event, followed her heart when she opted to compete for Qatar.

The first-ever Chinese player to win an international chess competition when she won the 1998 world girls U-12 title in 1998, is married to fellow chess player Mohamad Al Medaihki who is from Qatar.

But while many criticise the swopping of nationalities, it seems unlikely that Chen and all the others are going to be the last athletes to compete for a country other than that of their birth.

And whether it is a matter of the heart or a financial matter, or whether it is a question of residency, the fact remains that in today's open world athletes are bound to compete for countries other than those of their birth.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency