How missionaries became mercenaries

One should not be fooled by sentimental talk of a new homeland for which one's heart beats strongly. There are those who change citizenship several times over, so if their hearts constantly beat so hard, they would drop like flies.

Contemporary sport is a service industry. Therefore, sportspeople provide a service, which can be varied because it depends on the needs of the purchasers. To fans they provide entertainment. To sponsors, they advertise products. For governments, image prestige. This is in general terms and without breaking it down into intermediate elements such as the media, commerce, industry and, in general, jobs for a large number of people

This was not always the case. For decades, sport was something of an ideological mission. And from the time of Coubertin even a mission to save the world and correct civilisation, which of course it failed to do. Today it is part of the market sector with all the consequences.

One consequence is the new status of professional athletes, which did not happen overnight. It was a long and twisting process of transforming former missionaries into current mercenaries. And this is no insult just an obvious fact.

Today, any professional athlete can be bought or sold like a commodity. The 'commodity' in question not only accepts such objectification, but often applies for it because it pays off. Demand mitigates moral opprobrium and such.

Service work is inherently necessary and useful. Only that resentment from the missionary period, often understood as a special obligation to the country of origin, has not died out in sport. Consequently, athletes who change their national colours are sometimes treated as traitors.

However, it is not possible to eat a cookie and have a cookie. Since sport has entered the realm of the free market, including the unfettered exchange of services, it is not worth grumbling about especially since there is no turning back from this path.

An unwanted, valuable citizen

The utilitarian functions of competitive sport needed to find a practical outlet and they did. The most fertile channel for the flow of services in this industry is the sports clubs. Football, volleyball, basketball, hockey, handball, etc. Contracts solve formal matters.

Overseas armies of foreign players form the backbone of many teams. Based in specific countries, they cater to the need for success, which leads to the identification of local communities with specific teams where the hired foreigners play.

More complicated are the procedures for changing nationality necessary to perform for national teams. Moving from club to club is not the same as moving from country to country. International federations in all disciplines apply restrictions that basically come down to the principle - to represent a country, you have to be a citizen of that country.

The granting of citizenship varies in details and waiting times. This is regulated by state laws. Athletes mostly have it easier than ordinary citizens. An eminently short path has been introduced for them by Qatar. Probably the only country in the world that does not have sports, but has athletes.

We probably remember the handball world championships in Qatar. Their handball team had 17 players, including 16 foreigners: from Spain, Croatia, France, Cuba, Iraq, Tunisia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iran, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. They won the silver medal.

And that is what it is all about, the practical usefulness of the mercenaries, but not only. The selection of Qatari representatives follows the rules of recruitment for the Foreign Legion - 'Under the new banner and for its glory' . The singing of a few verses of the anthem, and sometimes the change of name to Arabic, are sometimes obligatory.
Holenderka Li Jie i Polka Li Qian w trakcie meczu finałowego debla kobiet podczas dnia turnieju tenisa stołowego ITTF World Tour Warsaw Polish Open w 2016 roku. Fot. PAP/Bartłomiej Zborowski
This was experienced by Kenyan Stephen Cherono, who had to take the name Saif Saaeed Shaheen before becoming a Qatari and the world record holder in obstacle running for the glory of his new settlement, rather than his homeland, as he did not learn the anthem.

Sports condottieres support various national teams. Naturalised Ethiopian women win European titles in stadium running and cross-country racing. There are many reasons for changing colours. In the case of Africans, it is most often the desire for a better life and conditions for sporting development, although this is not a rigid rule.

Kenyan Wilson Kipketer, multiple world record holder in the 800m run, had both but applied for a third. He was making a good living in Europe because he was earning money from the sport meetings. From a sporting point of view, he was developing phenomenally and was promising even better, coached by Slawomir Nowak, one of Poland's most outstanding coaches.

However, he decided to become Danish and hit a wall. In the 1990s there was a seven-year wait for Danish citizenship. This applied to everyone, whether a French fries vendor or a two-lap champion. Wilson's rise in the sport was promising, just as Bolt's was later, but he had to wait his time.

W końcu się udało, urząd emigracyjny nieco odpuścił, skrócił mu postojowe do 4 lat a on rozwinął skrzydła. Dania zyskała cennego obywatela, którego nie chciała, a wraz z nim worek złotych medali mistrzostw świata i Europy oraz wspomniane wyżej rekordy z górnej półki.

Not with a spoon but with a ladle

A frequent reason for the decision to provide services abroad and to change nationality is the oversupply of sporting talent in one's own country and the difficulty of breaking through to one's home national team, without which there is no chance of Olympic or World Championship medals.

There are not many such countries, and the problems with promotion do not affect the entire national sport, usually a few specialities. Such countries undoubtedly include Kenya and Ethiopia with an overproduction of talent in middle and long distance running. They include China, if only with its surplus of good and very good table tennis players.

The ping-pong emigration of the Chinese set off like a torpedo in 1988, as table tennis was then featured at the Olympic Games, specifically in Seoul. It first embraced neighbouring countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong and quickly expanded.

The virtuoso stilt-walkers have strengthened the national teams of Australia, Canada, USA, Dominican Republic, Argentina and at the same time conquered Europe playing for Croatia, Austria, Spain, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, France and Poland, represented by Li Qian. SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE The Middle Kingdom has made something of a sporting invasion of foreign lands for the benefit of the invaders and ping pong in the 'occupied' areas. Li Qian was granted Polish citizenship in 2007. She went on to win a gold, silver and bronze medal at the European Championships for Poland.

I will not mention the names of Chinese women and men who have done the same as Li, because there are too many of them, and they are known mainly to ping pong fans. I will only mention that they are looked down upon at home and often branded as traitors.

A foreign passport deprives a Chinese of Chinese citizenship automatically. Although the authorities of the People's Republic of China have communism in their heart and capitalism in their head, they don't like those who serve the capitalists as sporting mercenaries. Which doesn't stop them from doing exactly the same thing, only to their own benefit.

The Politburo there, essentially acting as a Supervisory Board in a market economy, determined that China must have a world-class football team because it is a world power and that was that. Importing training ideas, hiring foreign coaches, did not work.

The comrades in the Central Committee decided that it was not worth pecking with a spoon, it should be done with a ladle. The decision was made that Chinese passports would be handed out to foreign footballers like candy. And this decision came into effect, which is interesting and significant.

In the People's Republic of China, being Chinese and a citizen is supposedly an unbreakable canon of the system. Extremely supposedly important for ideological, political and patriotic reasons. And how to understand passport handouts in light of the foundations of the state? As obvious hypocrisy of course.

Kazakhstan wants medallists

Sports expats also declare political motivations for changing colours. These have intensified in the wake of the war in Ukraine. The rescue platform for Russians and Belarusians is Kazakhstan, the most economically and politically stable country in the region.

The exodus of Belarusians began even before the war in 2020. Although dictator Lukashenko loves sport, he does not love athletes who think differently. The regime's refugees, real or perceived persecuted, were supported by Kazakhstan.

The war exacerbated this process by the aspirations of players from Russia, but not unconditionally. Kazakhstan has set a merit sieve in terms of the suitability of foreigners. Firstly, it does not want martial arts specialists, as it has its own. Secondly, it wants medallists, preferably Olympic ones.
This screening reduced the number of volunteers for naturalised Kazakhs. In addition, it has sifted the real motivations, especially of Russian athletes. A man who feels politically threatened in his country can simply apply for asylum.

But such an offer is no cinch for someone who is used to travelling the world, flashing lights in arenas and living on the state's dime. Sport in Kazakhstan, like in Russia, is state-owned. The entire football league hangs on the state budget, with little contribution from sponsors.

That's how former President Nursultan Nazarbayev set it up, and that's how it works. The alleged political motivations are rather unimportant. Candidates for new citizens are more concerned with continuing their careers and still earning good money.

A system of interconnected vessels

And it is money that is this primary driver of the sports migration mechanism. The political reasons cited by some athletes - apart from the obvious cases of threats to life or personal freedom - are often a bullshit that sometimes makes things easier and sometimes not.

However, it is the money that decides where to work. One should not be fooled by sentimental talk of a new, wonderful homeland for which the athlete's heart beats strongly. There are sportsmen and women who change their nationality several times during their careers, so if their hearts beat so strongly all the time, they would die of heart attacks like flies.

Athletes choose employers who pay well. And where they pay well, they also have good training conditions and good coaches who are hired to provide top-quality training services. It's a system of interconnected vessels.

Stephen Cherono was a talented runner, but not a star by any means. He became a star when he took the name Saif Saaeed Shaheen and Qatari citizenship. Not because he switched from rice to oil. It was because petrodollars helped him develop his talent.

Besides, many Africans are going down this path as Qataris, Saudis or citizens of Bahrain and also European countries. It will be no different, I think, with the Chinese national football team. It will probably be set off by young talent as well as very experienced players finishing their careers.

The example comes from the top

The unwritten rule of transfers between countries is unlikely to include the biggest stars. Usually blended into the home market, bound by sponsorship and advertising contracts, often on the status of celebrities and national idols.

Such are happy to provide services to rich clubs. They don't need to change nationality to increase their standard of living and training conditions, because they have both. They also usually have a lot of money and managers who can sell them for more, to selected clubs of course.

Citizenship changes are for those who want to make a name for themselves and have the chance to be accepted and, in fact, bought on better terms. Not necessarily by a rich country, but by anyone who secures a livelihood and a career. By doing so, they raise their status and income. Accompanying circumstances are secondary.

Observing today's arenas gives no reason to overestimate the social or civic sensibilities of professional athletes or their mentors. If this milieu truly respected democracy and individual rights, it would steer clear of countries such as Russia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or China.

Footballers wouldn't be kicking a ball or playing handball for the glory of the sheikhs. The activists wouldn't locate events there, such as the World Cup or Formula One racing, and soon maybe even the Olympic Games. But the athletes do it and their principals vaguely explain it.

Confusingly yet comically, as they invoke an...ideological mission in the process. Because sport brings nations together. It promotes peaceful competition. It promotes the spirit of fair play. Because all sportsmen and sportswomen are equal. No one should be excluded, not least because of their nationality, and this goes on and on.

We are currently going through this in relation to the Paris Games and the potential participation of Russians and Belarusians in them. The missionary zeal of IOC chief. Thomas Bach is an embarrassment. And the whole soap opera is pathetic because the missionaries are dyed-in-the-wool, greedy and cynical indeed.

The mercenary sport formula does not exclude common decency. It does not exclude the chances of choosing a foreign employer. However, it does require a proper assessment of the recipient of sports services. Not only in financial terms. Also from the point of view of civilisation standards.

In this respect, the weakest link is the high dignitaries of the sport, the heads of the international federations. They serve whoever pays more. And since the example comes from the top, athletes act similarly. Unless they have no such offers.

I don't know if this is a sad or just a realistic reflection. But I do know that the power of good example was supposed to be the most important of the missionary functions of sport. A bit of decency could have been at least a remedy. But it won't be, because sport has failed to live up to that mission too.

– Marek Jóźwik
– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Back in 2022, at a chess tournament in Warsaw (pictured), Kiryl Shevchenko (left) played as a Ukrainian and Richard Rapport (right) as a Hungarian. When they faced each other in the Polish capital a year later, both were already Romanians. Photo: PAP/Piotr Nowak
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