There should be no borders for athletes

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Sport is often double-faced. Beneath the hype, the truth is often uneasy and unpleasant. The Olympics, for instance, are borne along on a message of unity, yet no sporting event rouses such obscene jingoism. The brotherhood of athletes is endlessly advertised, yet racism flourishes in the fields of European football.

Massi Rosolino, the 200-metre individual medley champion at the Sydney Olympics: he trains in Australia, has (dual) Australian citizenship but swims for Italy. This perhaps does not sit well with some people.

Pain has no nationality and frustration belongs to no flag, they are not the prerogative of any country, and it is why athletes insist they share a unique bond. Except, of course, some Englishmen would prefer if foreigners did not invade their county cricket and Spanish football folk believe there are too many non-Spanish folk in their league.

Now Australia's head swimming coach, Greg Hodge, has questioned the wisdom of allowing foreign swimmers to hang around Australia for too long. Short exchanges, of course, are fine. Umm, for now at least.

The furore centres around swimmers like Massi Rosolino, the 200-metre individual medley champion at the Sydney Olympics: he trains in Australia, has (dual) Australian citizenship but swims for Italy. This perhaps does not sit well with some people for whom swimming for Australia is more important than anything, perhaps even swimming.

With the Athens Games looming, the head coach says every resource must be devoted to Australians. Admittedly, his job depends on how many medals Australian swimmers win and his priorities can be understood. Still, there is nothing remotely Olympian to his view. It is narrower than a lane in his pool.

Athletes, of all people, must not be constrained by borders. They captivate the world (Brazilian footballers bring joy to Bangaldeshis, and Indian hockey players send Spaniards into raptures) and must be free to travel it. To practice and learn their art wherever, and for however long, must remain an untouched freedom: the Australian needs the Indian to learn about pliant wrists and dancing footwork, the Indian craves the secrets of sweat and discipline from the Australian. Both are better for this exchange.

Ian Thorpe once flirted with the idea of basing himself in Europe. Should Germany tell him you're not welcome, or learn from him? Long-limbed Kenyan runners live in Denmark, and other centres in Europe. Should they be ordered to pack up and go home too? And while we're at it, shall we close the MRF Pace Foundation to foreigners as well? All sorts of madness can be unleashed.

Many years ago the Australian Cricket Board sent a few spinners to train in India with Bishan Singh Bedi and S. Venkataraghavan. Greg Blewett, one of the few batsmen chosen to accompany them, got injured, and Matthew Hayden pleaded to go in his place. And so Hayden went and pottered around at the nets in the subcontinent, inhaled the dust and unravelled some of the mystique of spin. Ultimately, it played a substantial role in giving him the technique and confidence to play India's bowlers so adeptly in the series last year. ''I learnt a lot on that tour, playing on the slow wickets and from my chats with Bishan and Venkat,'' Hayden said later.

Athletes benefit from lengthy exchanges, and the world is better for such multicultural mixing. A Brazilian plays for the Japanese soccer team, how delicious is that? As Thorpe himself said: ''By sharing information between different countries we will become better athletes.'' Russian four-time Olympic gold medallist Alexander Popov and his coach Gennadi Touretski based themselves for years in Australia and surely some of their genius rubbed off.

English county cricket cannot blame its woes on visiting pros with varied passports. If anything, their league is speckled with Australians and it is appalling they haven't learnt anything from their professional visitors. To say it blocks the place of aspiring English youngsters is bogus; there are limited foreigners and anyway talent mostly finds its way through.

Many years ago the Australian Cricket Board sent a few spinners to train in India with Bishan Singh Bedi and S. Venkataraghavan. Greg Blewett, one of the few batsmen chosen to accompany them, got injured, and Matthew Hayden pleaded to go in his place.

And so Hayden went and pottered around at the nets in the subcontinent, inhaled the dust and unravelled some of the mystique of spin. Ultimately, it played a substantial role in giving him the technique and confidence to play India's bowlers so adeptly in the series last year. ''I learnt a lot on that tour, playing on the slow wickets and from my chats with Bishan and Venkat,'' Hayden said later.

So should we therefore ban even fleeting Hayden-like visits because it hurts India's chances, even though it reeks of absurdity? Should we stop such cricketing trips even though Indian players are better for having practiced with Hayden and cricket itself is better for an Australian playing spin so magnificently?. Should Australia in turn bar its doors to young Indian cricketers, in the fear they might learn how to play pace on bouncy wickets one day? If the answer is yes, then let's take the word ''inter'' out of ''international sport''.

The swimming head coach is surely an honourable man but he is inadvertently strengthening the agenda of parochialists with a limited world view. These are people who cringe at the very thought of Rod Marsh wearing an English shirt and teaching at the Poms academy.

It is reminiscent of those who appear offended by John Wright tutoring an Indian team. To demonstrate a willingness to learn, from another country, from a man born in another land, is in fact a strength. Humility is rarely a vice.

It will be a pity if swimmers like Rosolino are asked to leave. The Italian-Australian, for instance, swims the individual medley (not an Australian speciality) and his Australian coach, Ian Pope, said his presence here would energise his peers. Better still, Rosolino pays fees like all swimmers, he is not here because someone likes his face.

One reason why some coaches may be chary of long-term visitors is the leaking of secrets, of training schedules and innovative techniques. They are not all conspiracy theorists with chlorine-fuelled imaginations.

After all, portions of Grant Hackett's training program recently made the rather mysterious journey on to the pages of an American coaching magazine.

Still, it is no excuse for paranoia. Manuals themselves help but they do not make champions. Hackett is constructed not just from how many hours and number of repetitions his coach puts down on paper; like all champions his building blocks are genes, build, drive, discipline, desire, confidence.

Furthermore, the sporting world must learn to share. As it is the disparity between first world sporting nations and the rest borders on the obscene. Australian swimmers train in fast pools, wearing fastskins, are scientifically tested and technologically driven. Good for them. But swimmers from Africa are lucky to even see water. Their entire sports budget is equivalent to what advantaged nations spend on lane markers. Admittedly, Rosolino is not from such a country but it is the idea of oneness that sport must embrace.

Mostly, Australia does so, it is inclusive and it is generous. Countries world over have raided it for talent and it has preened at the compliment. England's women's hockey coach and its swimming boss are Australian. In the same way, Australia has imported British triple jumper Keith Connor and Moroccan runner Said Aouita to chart its athletic programme.

Such mixes bode well for everyone. Most of all for sport itself.