The global trade in muscle

Once, the rich world plundered Africa for mineral wealth. Now, as we shall see at the Olympics, it s

In August last year, Kenya's finest steeplechaser went to bed for the last time as Stephen Cherono. The next morning, he awoke four months older as Saif Saeed Shaheen of Qatar, according to his new passport. When he won the steeplechase at the Zurich Grand Prix on 15 August 2003, he couldn't remember his new name. Since 2000, Qatar has "acquired" several Kenyan distance runners and an entire team of Bulgarian weightlifters. Its regional rival, Bahrain, the new Formula One Grand Prix host (motor-sport tradition: nil), has also been shopping in Africa. In 2002, three more Kenyans, Abel Cheruiyot, Leonard Mucheru and Gregory Konchellah, became Bahrainis. The flow of athletes from poor to rich countries is unrelenting: athletes go from Angola, Cameroon, Gabon, Senegal, Morocco and Kenya to France; from Jamaica and Guyana to Canada; from Nigeria to Spain, Portugal and Germany; from Somalia and Eritrea to the US. In the forthcoming Olympic Games, dozens of athletes will be performing for countries in which they were not born and with which they have no connection.

The scramble for Africa was once for its mineral wealth; now it is for its athletic raw material. John Bale of Keele University has called it "the brawn drain". Wealth of all kinds has long been transferred from the poor majority world to the rich minority world. Now the wealth includes muscle.

Belgium once grew rich on Central African rubber; now the football club Royal Antwerp works with Manchester United to harvest African players from "farm clubs" for European sides. These "schools", pioneered by the Dutch club Ajax and since followed by FC Copenhagen, Feyenoord, Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco, are the latter-day counterparts of the colonial outpost. They exist to enhance the playing power and economic wealth of rich-world sport. "Of the 311 players making up the 16 national squads in the 2002 African Nations Cup," writes Bale, "193, or 62 per cent, were employed full-time in Europe." The global centre of the football industry creates wealth at the expense of nations at the periphery. African leagues are deskilled.

It happens in almost every sport. North American baseball clubs have academies in the Dominican Republic. In New Zealand, rugby union increasingly recruits from the Polynesian islands of Samoa, Fiji and Tonga: of the country's 2003 World Cup players, nine out of 31 were of Polynesian extraction. The island teams, writes Stephen Jones, the Sunday Times rugby correspondent, "are being demolished".

The growing number of athletic identity transfers suggests that global standing in sport is at least as important to a nation's sense of self as membership of the political top table at, say, the UN Security Council. Sport thus communicates to the poor majority of the world's population the message that only freakishly gifted individuals are welcome in the global system. Generations of athletes are driven abroad, and local heroes give young people a model of emigration and standard-bearing for rich-world paymasters.

It's the old story: the people living in poverty provide the muscle, while the wealthy control the rules and capture the benefits. If you are a prodigiously talented athlete, the door to global sport is open. Thanks to an increasingly sedentary and voyeuristic culture, the obese youth of the rich world plays a diminishing role on the field of play. Football, cycling and athletics tournaments field ever more Africans, east Europeans and Latin Americans. But they perform for western paymasters, under the direction of western tacticians and western technical staff.

Does it matter? It surely does. Sport is the supreme cultural and economic expression of our times. But the prestige and airtime commanded by a handful of "official" global sports ensure that local folk sports get devoured. The diversity of sporting expression, like the diversity of languages, is diminished and impoverished. Local derbies, regional rivalries or once world-renowned national events, such as the Tour of Colombia bike race, are made to seem peripheral and irrelevant. Modern, global sport standardises space and time, fixes and polices uniform rules, clones and distributes playing surfaces.

In his recent history of the Olympic Games, David Miller points out that more people in the world (78 per cent) recognise the Olympic rings than any other symbol. They are ahead of the Shell logo (72 per cent), the McDonald's arches (66 per cent) and the Mercedes symbol (61 per cent). The worldwide sports market is estimated to be worth around $500bn a year, more than double the total external debt of sub-Saharan Africa. Global sports sponsorship alone was worth $26bn in 2003 and the UK spent more than £4bn on sports equipment. Miller quotes Dick Pound, president of the Olympic Games Study Commission: "Take away sponsorship and commercialism from sport today and what is left? A large, sophisticated, finely tuned engine developed over a period of 100 years - with no fuel."

Modern sports programmes devour budgets way beyond the reach of most poor countries. Yet Kenya's runners, Colombia's cyclists, Mexico's boxers, athletes of all sorts from the former Soviet Union and footballers from every part of the poor world inspire western audiences, sell tickets and attract TV viewers. The rich world invests little in their production and offers producer countries no means of profiting from their exports. England's Premiership football managers react with barely disguised contempt when African players ask for leave to represent their home nations in non-European competitions. With no apparent irony, Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, appeared on television during the recent BBC-sponsored Sport Relief fundraiser to present a £100,000 cheque on behalf of the whole Premiership for projects for the world's poor. That's just one week's pay for a top player in England.

What matters in life, you may say, is the provision of clean water to the world's poor, not the soap opera of global sport. But the two orders of reality are not as distant as they might seem. The medal table of the Olympic Games and every major world championship, the results sheet from the Fifa World Cup finals and the general classification of the Tour de France all give a similar hierarchical picture of the modern community of nations. More people consult them than ever browse the UN or World Bank tables of literacy or infant mortality. The global trade in muscle would be a purely personal affair to the athletes concerned were it not that contemporary sport has become a symbolic system which conveys, or seems to convey, knowledge of the world, and therefore influences political decisions.

The Times recently published an "ultimate" points table of Olympic performance dating back to 1896. Its innovative scoring system put the US on top, with Great Britain in an implausible third place. Sudan was bottom, along with Rwanda and two other nations. The survey didn't mention that, for years, many countries in the world didn't even compete. And a medal table that took into account ethnic origins - going back to athletes' grandparents - would yield a very different final table. The US, Canada and France would quickly slip down. Qatar and Bahrain would probably be left with nothing. And you could have another table: for the sweatshop communities who produce most of the sports clothing and equipment.

How can sport be rescued from the muscle trade? There should certainly be a single decision-making body for changes of allegiance. It should not be left, as it is now, to vulnerable national sports bodies, such as those in Kenya, to give consent to athletes' nationality changes. Nor should the prestige and economic boost of hosting international championships be confined to rich nations, with, for instance, the US getting football's World Cup in 1994 even though it didn't actually play men's football to any significant degree. It is scandalous that the prodigious success of Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes has never earned either nation a World Athletics Championships.

A more extensive strategy is suggested by the Australian cyclist Bradley McGee, winner of the prologue in last year's Tour de France. For the past three years, McGee's contract has included a clause that commits his French cycling team, FDJ.com, to funding a development programme for young riders in his native New South Wales. There should be a similar contractual clause for all athletes from non-industrialised nations, irrespective of their sport. For each sporting star absorbed into the global system, replacements would then be brought through, ensuring funding for areas with proven records in athletic productivity.

Run along current lines, the sports industry is unsustainable. The global trade in muscle is just another extractive industry that takes far more than it puts back. When we criticise globalisation, and call for reform of the global trade rules so that poor countries have a fair chance to sell primary products such as cotton in the west, we should add a new demand: for fairly traded athletes.

Andrew Simms is policy director of nef, the new economics foundation; Matt Rendell is the author of A Significant Other: riding the centenary Tour de France with Lance Armstrong (Weidenfeld & Nicolson). Their report "Gladiators and Slaves: the global trade in muscle" is published later this year by nef