Athletics: Letter from Paris - Barber's French short-cut

Here is a tale of two young Africans. The first, Serge, was a 14-year-old football prodigy when he was brought to France from the Ivory Coast and joined the youth teams of professional clubs in, first, Nantes and then Rennes. Like many 14-year-old soccer prodigies, he did not make the grade. After drifting through the amateur leagues, he was arrested earlier this month as an illegal immigrant. He is in detention in Nantes, awaiting probable expulsion.

The second, Eunice, was a 16-year-old street urchin with extraordinary athletic talent when she was spotted and helped by the French cultural attache in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The diplomat, Dominique Dufour, arranged for her to develop her ability at the athletic club in Rheims in northern France. In February, only 18 months after she first sent in her request, she became a naturalised French citizen.

Last Sunday, Eunice Barber won the gold medal for the heptathlon at the World Championships in Seville. She is the only French gold medal winner of the games.

Eunice Barber is a superb athlete. Mr Dufour deserves only praise for helping her to use a talent which might otherwise have been lost. With her pre-race tears, her post-race grins, her trademark nose-ring and her broken French, the new "Barber of Seville" has captured many hearts in her adopted country.

Her story has also raised some awkward questions, which do not end at the frontiers of France. Eunice Barber is not the only athlete of "transferred" nationality at the Seville games. Niurka Montalvo, who won the women's long jump for Spain, was born in Cuba. Three members of the Australian team come from the former Soviet Union. One, the pole-vaulter Viktor Chistiakov, became an Australian the week before the games.

There are four other newly naturalised athletes in the French team. One of them, Driss Maazouzi, who used to run for Morocco, received his clearance papers from Rabat the week the games began.

Under the IAAF rules, three years have to elapse before an athlete can change countries, unless his native federation grants a special dispensation. Morocco had originally asked for financial "compensation".

Is that where we are heading? Transfer fees for talented athletes from poor countries to wealthy ones? Talent spotting of promising young athletes in the third world to bolster the "national" teams of the first world?

In the case of Eunice Barber, the French government denies any special treatment. It is, however, highly unusual for a naturalisation demand to be processed and approved within 18 months.

The leading Green politician, Jean-Luc Bennahmias, said that he was "delighted" by her success, but he pointed out that there were tens of thousands of illegal immigrants - "sans-papiers" - in France who stand little or no chance of becoming French under the present rules.

Why should there be one law for the athletically talented and another for the legions of hard-working, domestic and sweat-shop labourers who make their own modest contribution to the French economy?

A similar question was put to Eunice Barber by a French journalist minutes after she clinched her heptathlon gold and danced around the Seville running track waving a French tricolour. She replied, in English: "I didn't get my naturalisation quickly. I waited like everyone else. If all the sans- papiers can be made legal, then fine..."

The Barber case is not a simple one. Dominique Dufour, the diplomat who launched her career, is not an official talent-spotter for the French athletics federation.

He is a man who loved athletics and started a club for the street children of Freetown, whether they were talented or not. Eunice Barber joined the club and regularly ran faster than the boys. She also disappeared for long periods and failed to turn up for training.

When Dufour persuaded her to leave the civil strife in Sierra Leone and go to Rheims six years ago, she had never heard of the heptathlon. All of her athletic education has been in France.

On the other hand, what would have happened to Eunice Barber if - like Serge from the Ivory Coast - her youthful talent had faded? Would she still have received her French naturalisation papers? The answer is almost certainly no. She would have been placed on an aircraft back to west Africa and the civil war in Sierra Leone.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
fashion
News
news
News
people
Travel
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
travel
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS2 Teacher with SEN responsibilities

£115 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: KS2 teacher with SEN responsibi...

Administrative Assistant

£60 - £75 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Administrative Assitant Hertford...

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

** Secondary History Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments