INCHEON, South Korea - The growing number of African-born athletes competing under Asian flags could discourage the development of home-grown talent, the Olympic Council of Asia said on Monday, but also suggested their success may help raise regional standards.
Several oil-rich Gulf states including Bahrain, Qatar and United Arab Emirates have achieved overnight athletics success by recruiting fleet-footed young Africans, who are free to compete at international level after meeting eligibility and residency requirements.
Excluding two race walking events, five of the seven track gold medals won in the first two days of the athletics competition at the Asian Games have been won by runners born in Africa who have switched allegiance.
Wei Jizhong, an honorary life vice president of the OCA, warned of the dangers of buying success. "We have to work to avoid any country or region, instead of training the athletes, they buy the athletes," he said at a news conference on Monday.
"If they buy the athletes, they stop training their own athletes. That is not beneficial to a country's sport."
In Incheon, the blue riband men's 100 metres sprint was won by Nigerian-born Femi Ogunode, who moved to Qatar in 2009 and was allowed to compete at the Guangzhou Asiad a year later, where he won the 200/400 double.
He became the first man to run under 10 seconds at the Asian Games on Sunday.
Ogunode's former compatriot, Oluwakemi Mujidat Adekoya, only switched allegiance to Bahrain earlier this year and won the women's 400m, while athletes born in Kenya, Morocco and Ethiopia have also struck gold at the ongoing Asian Games.
At the Guangzhou Games four years ago, all six medallists from the men's 5,000 and 10,000m were born in Africa.
However, OCA Director General Husain Al-Musallam, speaking at the same news conference, said he was not concerned about the possibility that an influx of African talent could discourage young Asian athletes from taking up the sport.
"No, we are not worried," the Kuwaiti said. "These athletes will raise the standard. They have met all the eligibility requirements and they are eligible to compete. "They (Asian) athletes will work harder to achieve a higher standard."
Al-Musallam also said that hundreds of applications from African-born athletes hoping to switch allegiance were being turned down by Gulf states.
Japan's Ayumi Hagiwara, who won bronze in the women's 10,000m, said the presence of African athletes was a double-edged sword.
"First of all, I did think that African athletes had more support than we did," she said after her race on Saturday, which was won by Ethiopia-born Alia Saeed Mohammed, who now represents the UAE.
"I also believe that African athletes will help us and inspire us to do better in future competitions."
However, 1,500m runner Kim Yong-gu thought the stiffer competition from African-born competitors had made it more difficult for South Koreans to shine at their home Games.
"I think South Korean athletes would have been in a better position if they hadn't participated in an Asian event," he said.