TOKYO — There’s a lot of sand in Qatar, but not a lot of beach parties. At least, not the kind of revelry that beach volleyball players pull in their bikinis and short shorts.
However, a lack of tradition has not stopped Qatar from putting together a top beach volleyball team. On Saturday, Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan will compete for bronze in the men’s Olympic beach volleyball competition, beating Italy, the 2016 silver medalists.
“Everyone knows Qatar in beach volleyball now,” said Mr Younousse. “It’s on the map.”
Armed with money, coaches and state-of-the-art training facilities, Qatar has sought to muster an athletic force worthy of hosting the 2022 World Cup, not to mention other high-profile sporting events the tiny Gulf state is eager to put on.
In Tokyo, Qatar has lined up 16 participants – 13 men and three women – most of whom were from other countries. Among them are athletes who are originally from Mauritania, Egypt, Sudan and Morocco. To represent Qatar, where Arabic names are common, many have shed their original names for competitive purposes. But they earn salaries and opportunities that would be impossible in their country of origin.
“We are one of the best countries to support sports, the government supports us to achieve things,” said Abderrahman Samba, a 400m hurdler who finished fifth in the final in Tokyo. “I don’t think I can tell you all the support right now, it will take days to tell.”
Mr Samba grew up in Saudi Arabia but ran to Mauritania, his parents’ homeland, before emerging as a Qatari competitor in 2016, about a year after moving there.
“They helped me follow my dream,” he said. “They give me everything.”
Mr. Younousse, the beach volleyball player, grew up in Senegal. His partner, Mr Tijan, was Gambian. Both were recruited by Qatari scouts who scoured the beaches of Dakar, the Senegalese capital, in search of leggy talent to play for national glory – a nation, admittedly, different from their own.
The father of Fares Elbakh, one of Qatar’s two gold medalists in Tokyo, was an Olympic weightlifter for Egypt. His son, better known in weightlifting circles as Meso Hassona, followed in his footsteps, but for a different flag. Last week, Mr. Elbakh set two records in the 96-kilogram division and won the first Olympic gold in Qatar’s history.
Qatar is not the only country whose Olympic teams boast of foreign-born talent. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have also packed their teams with imported athletes.
Dozens of Chinese-born table tennis players, who would not have made it into China’s dominant squads, have competed for other countries in the recent Olympics. In Tokyo, rowers from China represented Australia, Japan and Canada, among others. Ni Xilian, a 58-year-old who was in the Chinese national team in the mid-1980s, played for Luxembourg. She lost in the first round.
This week, a sprinter named Emre Zafer Barnes competed for Turkey in the 100m dash in Tokyo. Six years ago, he was a Jamaican named Winston Barnes.
He was granted Turkish citizenship along with another Jamaican-born sprinter, Jak Ali Harvey, once known as Jacques Montgomery Harvey. Both did not come out of the preliminaries in Tokyo. Mr Barnes said his income in Turkey was linked to his athletic achievements.
“In Jamaica, you know, you have a lot of athletes running pretty fast times, close to medal, podium standard,” said Mr. barnes. “It doesn’t leave much room for other guys like me.”
At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, nearly 50 foreign-born athletes competed for the United States and eight won medals. Four runners from Kenya were recruits in a US military program that trades athletic training for military service.
Yet the United States is a country that is regularly supported by immigration. In Qatar, which is heavily dependent on imported labour, nearly 90 percent of residents are foreigners, but only a small number can hope for citizenship. Athletes are among the exceptions.
According to international human rights groups, an explosion in the construction and renovation of stadiums in Qatar in preparation for the World Cup was accompanied by abuse of migrant workers. The coronavirus pandemic has made such foreign workers more vulnerable, they say.
The track’s international governing body, World Athletics, has expressed caution about another form of imported labor: the active deployment of African runners by wealthier nations. Sebastian Coe, the president, has likened the practice in its extreme forms to human trafficking.
Qatar, which has one of the world’s highest per capita incomes, started recruiting foreign athletes a long time ago. In 1992, the country won its first Olympic medal (bronze) courtesy of Mohammed Suleiman, a 1500-meter specialist who was born in Somalia. Qatar also recruited two of his brothers. The country’s next medal came eight years later, from a weightlifter from Bulgaria.
In 2008, a government-funded institution, Aspire Academy, took in its first batch of students, aiming to become the world’s leading sports academy in youth athlete development.
One of the stars of the academy is Mutaz Essa Barshim, a high jumper who shared a heartwarming gold with an Italian in Tokyo. He was born and raised in Qatar, but his father was a runner of Sudanese descent. Several of Mr. Barshim’s siblings are also athletes.
Coaches in the Gulf say wealthy Arab parents are less likely to let their children pursue sports careers. In contrast, sport can be seen as a way out of poverty for children in parts of Africa.
An opportunity to work with top coaches in luxury facilities is an easy draw for Qatar. But others worry that the country is not playing fair. In 2016, Jama Aden, a Somali-born Qatari team running coach, was arrested with illegal performance-enhancing substances in his hotel room in Spain and the subject of a criminal investigation. A Qatari runner, originally from Sudan, was also arrested by Spanish police.
Months earlier, a Nigerian-born sprinter for Qatar had been retroactively disqualified from the 2008 Beijing Games after doping tests came back positive. Another Qatari runner of Nigerian descent was banned for two years in 2012 after testing positive for clenbuterol.
Mr Younousse, who made his Olympic debut in 2016 alongside a Brazilian-born player, said Qatar’s support was the only way to reach the pinnacle of beach volleyball.
He had been playing basketball in Senegal since he was eight, he said, and American scouts had come to see him. But basketball was a duty to him, and the risk of injury terrified him. He preferred another sport.
“Beach volleyball is fun,” he says. “It is thanks to Qatar that I am here.”
Tariq Panja reporting contributed.