Exclusive: Changing Swimming Nationalities: Part I. Trends and Temptations

By Phillip Whitten

Swimmers changing nationalities. It seems to be happening more and more frequently these days.

One month Sarah Poewe was swimming for South Africa, the next for Germany. New Zealand’s up-and-coming young flyer, Corney Swanepoel, also used to be a Springbok, while another Kiwi, former 50-meter breaststroke world record-holder Zoe Baker, used to represent Great Britain.

Belarus’ Alena Popchanka — the 2003 world champion in the 200-meter free and a 54-second 100-meter sprinter – applied to switch her nationality last year to France, where she has trained for several years and where she married her French coach. That switch would have vaulted France into gold medal contention in both freestyle relays in Athens. But Belarus officials said “nyet.” Alena would have to wait a full year, as required by FINA rules. The one-year residency regulation can only be waived if officials from both countries agree. In this case, France said “oui,” but Belarus emphatically rejected the waiver.

Just last week, Brits Joanne Fargus and Robin Francis announced they were jumping ship to swim for Australia and South Africa, respectively.

The US is by no means immune to this trend. Ron Karnaugh, who represented Uncle Sam at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, used his dual citizenship to become a Polish swimmer last year, though he just missed making the Polish Olympic team.

The list goes on and on.

Even before the avalanche of nationality-switches got rolling, FINA said it would tighten its rules to make such switches more difficult. And, indeed, there is much to be said for FINA’s position. There’s also a strong argument in favor of swimmer “free agency.” We will explore both sides in a future article.

But now, a new element is being thrown into the equation: money.


Swimming World has learned that Qatar, the oil-rich emirate on the Persian Gulf, recently offered South African superstar Ryk Neethling “a lot of money” to represent Qatar through the 2008 Olympics.

According to David Isacson, a reporter for The Johannesburg Times, the offer amounted to 20 million South African Rand, or about US$3,155,000.

The Qatari offer, which arrived via e-mail, came “out of the blue,” said Neethling. He admits he was tempted: “You definitely sit up and think about it … It was a lot of money — guaranteed.”

The Qataris are not new to the athlete poaching game. In the past few years they have acquired an impressive stable of runners, most prominently Kenya’s Stephen Cherono, the world record-holder in the 3000-meter steeplechase. For a lifetime salary of $1,000 per month, Cherono changed his allegiance to Qatar and his name to Said Saaeef Shaheen.

Swimmers, apparently, come with a higher price tag.

After the Montreal World Championships, Neethling, his South African and former University of Arizona teammate Roland Schoeman, and several other elite international swimmers were invited to spend a week in Qatar. Neither South African made the trip.

According to Schoeman’s agent, David Arluck, the offer was merely for a “training trip to see the country and swim with other elite athletes”.

The swimmers were to have arrived in Qatar last Friday.

This is the first in a series of articles by Phillip Whitten about changing sports nationalities. Part II will discuss why offers like the Qataris’ may be tempting to many world-class swimmers.