According to Seb Coe, the IAAF’s president, the ban has become important because it is “abundantly clear with regular multiple transfers of athletes especially from Africa that the present rules are no longer fit for purpose. Athletics, which at its highest levels of competition is a championship sport based upon national teams, is particularly vulnerable in this respect. Furthermore, the present rules do not offer the protections necessary to the individual athletes involved and are open to abuse.”
The ban would be in place until a working group can fashion out new rules by the end of 2017 to guide the switch of national allegiance. The new rules are expected to toughen the ones before it making it very difficult for athletes to switch nationalities just like in sports such as football.
While this ban was perhaps particularly targeted at powerhouses such as Kenya and Ethiopia and Gulf countries such as Qatar and Bahrain who are enticing athletes with financial rewards, athletes from countries such as Ghana would also be affected.
Ghanaians in nationality switch
In 2013, one of Ghana’s greatest athletes -if not the greatest- Ignisious Gaisah, a long jumper, switched nationalities to the Netherlands. For Ghana, he won silver at the World Championships (Helsinki 2005), gold at the Commonwealth Games (Melbourne 2006), gold at the World Indoor Championships (Moscow 2006) and bronze at the Commonwealth Games (2010 New Delhi) among many others.
One of his reasons for wanting to switch nationalities was financial as he was nearing the twilight of his career.
Gaisah is the highest profiled athlete to switch his allegiance but many others have attempted or hinted at doing so in the past. They include heptathlete Margaret Simpson, sprinter Vida Anim and wheelchair athlete Patrick Yaw Obeng.
What are the push factors?
According to Erasmus Kwaw, an executive member of the Ghana Athletics Association (GAA), there are ‘push factors’ that motivate Ghanaian athletes to aspire to switch nationalities.
“From the IAAF’s perspective, I think the major driving factor has been economics. People wanting to get better lives for themselves by joining other nations where they will get some income and some degree of sponsorship…so those are push factors that make athletes want to take those steps.”
Athletes over the years have been consistent in their complaints about the absence of training facilities and coaches, funding to international tournaments, sponsorships and most importantly the state’s failure to honour financial commitments towards medal winning athletes.
According to Kwaw, Ghana is even ‘lucky’ not to have had many more of its athletes singing a different anthem.
Win some, lose some
Nationality switch has not been all negative for Ghana as the country has also benefitted from the practice. Sprinters Sean Safo Antwi and Tim Abeyie have switched their nationalities from Britain to Ghana, with the former even competing for Ghana at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
The motivation for athletes of Ghanaian-born athletes to switch is the chance to participate in major championships such as the Olympics because spots in teams USA, Great Britain and many others are highly competitive unlike Ghana.
According to Erasmus Kwaw, “before the Olympics [in Rio], there might have been applications from some athletes or some overtures of athletes – because they did not come officially – of Ghanaian heritage in Europe and America wanting to compete for Ghana.”
So, is the ban and the ensuing new rules good or bad news for Ghana?
“We cannot classify at this moment whether [the ban] us going to be positive or negative for us. From our side, we might have lost one but we got two to someone into our fold who have been of immense help to the country,” says Erasmus Kwaw.