‘Exiled’ African Athletes, Career and Sport Citizenship Challenge

‘Exiled’ African Athletes, Career and Sport Citizenship Challenge

by Gerard Akindes

In their slide show In pictures: Africa’s exiled Olympians[i] , BBC Africa highlights some African-born elite athletes who will be representing non-African nations at the London Olympic games in 2012. On a similar note, prior to the 26th African Cup of Nations in 2008, BBC Sport presented a comparable article The Nations Cup’s missing stars[ii], which listed some renowned Africa born football players who opted to represent non-African nations for international competitions. These two articles present current cases of Africa supplying other nations with talented elite athletes.

Beyond these examples, having African athletes representing non-African is one of the most visible sides of the migration of African athletes which has a long history preceding the constitution of most African nation-states. Players like Mozambican-born Eusebio played the FIFA world cup for Portugal, and Ben Barek originally from Morocco played for France. Although Eusebio and Ben Barek played for France and Portugal when their country of origins were not nations yet, they in fact, they already represented cases of African born athletes representing European nations.

Academically several authors like Bale, Lanfranchi, Poli and Darby et al.[iii] have analyzed the migration of African athletes through time. By analogy the term brain drain commonly used to describe the south-north migration of intellectual elites, the terms “muscle drain” or “feet drain” were established to label the movement of African athletes towards the richer nations mostly Europeans or the United States of America (USA).

If the colonial migration flows were essentially from African colonies to the colonizer, the cotemporary flows represent a diversity of routes, destinations and sports. In fact the combination of globalization, the commodification of sport, and the emergence of the Arabic gulf oil rich nations have contributed to the emergence of new pulling nations in addition to the initial paths established by colonial linkages. Irrespective of the evolution and transformations of the flows and the period, African athletes representing non-African nations is an indisputable reality.  As showed by the BBC news Africa slide show, African athletes can be seen in a very diverse number of nations. They represent countries like Poland, Qatar, USA, Denmark or Bahrain.

In comparison to the traditional former colonial nations, the unusual citizenships for African born athletes seem to generate more attention and new concerns about a form of looting of African athletic talent. This creates at times an ambivalent and contradictory sentiment with Africans feeling betrayed by these athletes who are winning for other nations or pride for having someone they identify to win a medal or trophy on the world sport stage.

However, few recent cases add some nuances to the win-lost equation.  In fact many football players of African descent have accomplished the opposite choice. Born and raised in Europe, football players like the French Frederic Kanoute after playing for France Under 21 decided to represent his father’s home country, Mali. The only ever Togo Olympic medal was won by the French born Benjamin Boukpeti who finished with a bronze medal in canoe individual slalom at the summer Olympics in 2008. Although the flows between Africa and other nations are not balanced, it is nonetheless a two way flows that raises important questions about citizenship, and nation-states.

Notwithstanding the feeling, perception or reaction, African- born but citizens of non-African nations, these facts raise important questions about the meaning of citizenship and nation-state and the potential contradiction and frictions between individual career and economic choice. Through international sport competitions such as the Olympics they challenge the post-colonial national identities and citizenship discourse.

Simply stated, the citizenship for an individual is the acknowledgment of a membership defined by a nation-state sanctioned by an official passport. States and governments define the conditions and criteria for the membership. Translated in sport terms, sport governing bodies add their terms of acceptance of the citizenship essentially when changes have occurred during the life time of the athlete. Consequently, citizenship in sport can simply be considered an administrative and legal national membership authenticated by the sport governing body rules.

Representing a nation integrates more factors than a simple citizenship acquired though genealogy or place of birth. Rather, there is a combination of an increasing commodification and professionalization of sport, and the ever increasing economic disparities, mean that there are other options available, and athletes integrate several of these elements in their choice of sport citizenship. Good training conditions, ability to generate substantial income, media exposure, and wining opportunity are among the factors athletes include in their choice of citizenship. Because of the economic, organizational and technological gap between most African countries and Europe, or oil and gas rich Arabic gulf nations, for many African athletes, gaining  citizenship in any of these countries represents a better economic and career option, leading to the “muscle drain” with African nations appearing to be the loosing part of the transaction.

Globalization of sport and the growing role of money in defining the power structure in terms of exchanges, and movement of athletes are defying the common understanding of nation- states and its representation through national teams. If a national team can be represented by one flag and a national anthem, athletes are a combination of complex and multiple identities defined by their country of birth, place of living and more importantly their personal choices. As professional athletes the economic choice of optimization of their career achievements and revenues will often determine their citizenship options.

The questions and challenge for Africa are how to reduce the structural and economic gap generating the imbalance in the flow of talents. Nationalism and patriotism cannot not fill the gap and retain African athletes when many other aspects of their society prove to have limited if no real national agenda and substance. Some athletes will choose another citizenship to achieve their career goals other will keep their African passport but many of them will keep their ties with their Africa and bring back more than a prestigious medal or trophy for politician’s public relation.

[i] BBC News (2012) In pictures: Africa’s exiled Olympians  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17730440

[ii] BBC Sport (2008) The Nations Cup’s missing stars http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/football/africa/7179496.stm

[iii] Bale, J., & Maguire, J. A. (1994). The global sports arena: Athletic talent migration in an interdependent world. London; Portland, Or: F. Cass.

Darby, P., Akindes, G., & Kirwin, M. (2007). Football academies and the migration of African football labor to Europe. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, Vol. 31(No. 2), 143-161.

Lanfranchi, P., & Taylor, M. (2001). Moving with the ball: The migration of professional footballers. Oxford, UK ; New York, NY: Berg.

Poli, R. (2004). Les migrations internationales des footballeurs :Trajectoires de joueurs camerounais en suisse. Neuchâtel: Editions CIES.


Guest Author

I am a guest contributor but also an avid reader of this blog.

One Response to ‘Exiled’ African Athletes, Career and Sport Citizenship Challenge

  1. Indeed this a thrilling piece and needs to be circulated even to Africa’s stake holders. Great and congrats Gerard

Leave a reply