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Global sports trade: athletes hurdle national borders for a better life

Runner Mohamed Marhum left behind poverty in Morocco to become a gold medal hopeful for Spain in the 2012 Olympics. The global sports trade is drawing more scrutiny as athletes trade talent for naturalization.

By / Correspondent / April 8, 2011

Mohamed Marhum trains at the Madrid Complutense University, where he has a scholarship. As a child in Morocco, he lived in a Spanish-run youth center until being noticed by a sports recruiter.

Andres Cala

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Madrid and Lleida, Spain

Mohamed Marhum became the man of the house early in life. Just 7 years old, he helped support his single mother and four younger siblings by working for tips carrying everything from bags of cement mix to bushels of food across the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave Ceuta on the northernmost tip of the Strait of Gibraltar.

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On a day when his job went long and he found himself on the Spanish side of the border when it closed for the night, he did what he was best at. He ran. But even though Mohamed was faster than most boys his age, he still couldn't make it through the next crossing. Police nabbed him. And because he didn't speak Spanish and didn't have ID, he was taken to a Spanish-run youth center where, he says today, he endured a steady regime of physical abuse. After three weeks, he ran again, escaping back to his family.

Thirteen years later, Mohamed Marhum is still running. But today's he's running for the same country he once so desperately tried to escape as one of Spain's leading long-distance racers and gold medal hopefuls for the London 2012 Olympics.

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Long, lean, and muscular, Mr. Marhum is now 20 years old and spends most days at Spain's top training facility at the Complutense University of Madrid. While his rise from poverty in Morocco to sports glory in Spain is the stuff of legend, it's a story line that is increasingly common in the global sports trade as talented young immigrants from developing countries are finding easier access to the West by exchanging physical talent for naturalization.

While changing flags is as old as the Olympics itself, the global athlete trade is drawing more scrutiny today. Nobody is contesting that many cases represent legitimate immigration, but others amount to blatant "shopping" for talent, with governments granting nationality within days in exchange for cash and the promise of a better life, indeed an offer many can't refuse.

But globalization is making it harder to differentiate between an athlete who becomes an immigrant and an immigrant who becomes an athlete. And it's harder to tell if countries are acting on humanitarian grounds when granting visas to athletes or if they are getting an unfair competitive advantage to reach podiums and glory.

"Unfortunately it's not a good system, but it's difficult to improve," says Denis Oswald, a law professor and director of the International Centre for Sports Studies in Swit­zerland, and also a member of the International Olympic Committee. "I wouldn't say it's fair, but it's the way it is. You would need almost a court assessing each case individually because there are some very legitimate changes of nationality," Mr. Oswald says, "but even that would be almost impossible."

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