PAUL ROUSE: Fionnuala McCormack right to highlight fraud of ‘country-hopping’ but we are all complicit

Turkey's Yasemin Can celebrates winning gold in the women's 5000m at the 23rd European Athletics Championships. Pic: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The best thing about Fionnuala McCormack’s glorious denunciation of the sham that is international sport is that this is a fraud in which so many are complicit, writes Paul Rouse.

For those who may have missed what happened: McCormack came fourth at the recent European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam in a 10,000m race won by Turkey’s Yasemin Can.

Except of course, she wasn’t really beaten by the Turk, Yasemin Can, at all.

She was, instead, beaten by a Kenyan woman whose real name is Vivian Jemutai.

Last year, she changed her allegiance to Turkey and changed her name in the process.

“It’s more than frustrating at this stage, I am kind of sick of it really. It’s a joke really. I am not just saying this because I came fourth, it’s the same in every sport and I don’t think people should be able to just hop countries just because they feel like it,” said McCormack.

The fact is the rules in respect of national allegiance in athletics are so laughable that there is not even the need here to make a pretence of genuine migration: Yasemin Cam/Vivian Jemutai lives in Kenya and trains in Kenya, which makes the sham all the more outrageous.

Fionnuala McCormack
Fionnuala McCormack

It is wrong, of course, to single out athletics.

Reports from New Zealand show at the 2015 Rugby World Cup 40 New Zealand-born players played for other countries in the competition. Some of them were true stars of the competition:

There was, for example, Karne Hesketh who scored the winning try for Japan against South Africa in the best match of the tournament.

In all, players born in New Zealand played for nine different countries: Australia, Scotland, Ireland, England, France, Romania, Tonga and Japan.

By the way, there were five players in the New Zealand squad who were not born there, but were instead born in American Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Australia.

Now, it is obviously a crude (and wrong) instrument to reduce nationality to mere place of birth when it comes to sporting events. Family heritage within multicultural societies inevitably means players will qualify for teams because of the heritage of their parents and grandparents. The passage of economic migrants around the globe is also relevant as people move widely in search of work.

International teams should – and do – reflect these realities. And that clearly explains some of the reasons why 66 New Zealand-born players appeared at the Rugby World Cup. But Turkish-style sporting expediency explains much of the rest of it. The timelines around eligibility are less brazen and the rhetoric surrounding it is more sophisticated, but the essence of what is happening in respect of Turkish athletics is the same in many sports and in many countries.

For Irish Rugby, for example, the ready application of residency laws facilitates the recruitment of players who are not Irish, beyond moving to the country to play sport for a minimum of three years.

From Jared Payne to C.J. Stander, the fruits of this policy are evident in the best players who now field for Ireland.

CJ Stander
CJ Stander

Nobody can doubt the decency, the contribution, or the commitment of these players, but it is hard to deny the idea of international rugby is being undermined by the ‘rules’ that are now in place.

In respect of the players themselves, sports people have long accepted the notion of making compromises that allow them to compete on a global stage regardless of birth or heritage.

But what of the people of a country?

It appears for most people supporting the fortunes of an Irish team, this issue is an irrelevance.

They wish for Ireland to win and are not too bothered how this happens.

If this involves headhunting someone who can make Ireland stronger, then so be it.

But this approach does beg a simple question: how many New Zealanders and South Africans would have to be in an Ireland rugby team before you would have to stop calling it an Ireland team?

Is five too many? Or seven? Or 11? And why is one number the appropriate one and not another? It should be acknowledged there is no simple solution here.

A sort of Brexit- style, Little Englander approach would be contemptible — the notion of some sort of ‘national purism’ is odious. Population flows and the need to be flexible to cater for the migration of people in modern life must be facilitated.

But there is a difference between that and the cynical ‘country-hopping’ denounced by Fionnuala McCormack.

In general, the involvement of Irish sportsmen and sportswomen in international competition is a reminder of the complexities of the relationship between sport and national identity.

The brilliant historian Eric Hobsbawn once wrote a nation could be most easily understood through its sporting teams.

The flags, the anthems, the emblem, the colour, the unity of purpose underline this point.

Hobsbawm was right, but only to a point – the very fact of a national team is not in itself a celebration (or a manifestation) of nationhood. Other factors also matter – first among these: is the team competitive?

A team of 11 players — or 15 — holds an extraordinary power to bind a country of people together, but usually only when they are winning, or losing with what is perceived as honour.

When someone says they are ‘proud to be Irish’, it’s not usually something you hear after a hammering.

And this means – in Ireland – that the boundaries of Irish nationality are redrawn when it suits.

We don’t make people change their names, but — when it comes down to it — we are Turkey, too.


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