Malta’s record-breaking results in the recent Games of the Small States of Europe were dampened by various reports about international athletes being recruited to represent Malta despite having no connection to the country.
Malta achieved its best-ever result in the games, topping the rankings with a total of 97 medals, ten ahead of second-placed Cyprus, a staggering 70 medals more than Malta won at the previous games in 2019.
However, the presence of athletes who did not appear to be Maltese did not go unnoticed, with some attributing Team Malta’s success to their having brought in outside help.
Several readers contacted Times of Malta to request a fact-check into whether athletes are really being awarded passports to represent Malta and whether Malta’s success at the games is down to their performance.
The issue was first raised by table tennis coach and former player David Pace, who pointed to four international players being “contracted” to represent Malta at the games.
Pace’s comments were echoed by San Marino table tennis coach Claudio Stefanelli and Maltese player Andrew Gambina, who lamented being left out of the Maltese squad in favour of two players “with no connection to Malta”.
Rumours of similar recruitments taking place across other disciplines abounded. A list of over 60 Team Malta athletes with foreign-sounding names was widely shared through WhatsApp and other messaging apps, presented as apparent evidence of how widespread this practice is.
What do the regulations say?
The GSSE regulations say that in order to represent a country, an athlete needs to either be a citizen of that country or have lived in the country for a minimum of three years.
In Malta’s case, citizens could be people who are born and raised in Malta, others who are of Maltese descent but may have been born or raised elsewhere, as well as people awarded a passport on sporting merit.
The passport-by-merit scheme allows the government to award citizenship to people who have provided “exceptional services” across several disciplines, including science, arts and sport.
The practice of luring athletes to a country has long been practised across several disciplines but has recently come under the spotlight with several countries including Qatar, Bahrain and the USA importing athletes to join their Olympic contingent.
Olympic Games regulations state that an athlete may change nationality and represent a new country, provided they have not represented their country of origin for the previous three years.
The GSSE is open to countries with a population of under one million people, with the exception of Cyprus, which has seen its population grow to exceed this number since the competition started in 1984. Critics argue that importing foreign-born athletes to participate in the games runs counter to the spirit of the competition and artificially distorts the pool of athletes from which a country can select its representatives.
The extent to which other countries participating in GSSE import foreign-born athletes is unclear.
Insiders who spoke to Times of Malta argue that it has always been common practice for countries participating in the games to recruit foreign-born athletes to join their teams, pointing to several instances of high-ranking foreign-born athletes representing their adopted countries throughout past editions of the games.
Were Team Malta athletes really granted a passport?
Yes, a Malta Olympic Committee spokesperson told Times of Malta that a total of seven athletes who participated in the games were awarded a passport by sporting merit.
- Felix Wetzel, Table Tennis
- Dimitrij Prokopcov, Table Tennis
- Camilla Iacob, Table Tennis
- Renata Strbikova, Table Tennis
- Amber Melgoza, Basketball
- Eric Washington, Basketball
- Matija Pecotic, Tennis
Pecotic, moved to Malta in 1993 when he was just three years old.
The Team Malta contingent was made up of 214 athletes in total.
Of these, 183 athletes were Maltese nationals, 24 were non-Maltese nationals who resided in Malta for at least the past three years and seven were awarded a passport by merit.
Why was table tennis targeted?
Half of Team Malta's eight-person table tennis team were foreign athletes recruited specifically for the games.
Speaking to Times of Malta, an MOC spokesperson said that the decision to bring in foreign players by awarding them passports was taken by the Malta Table Tennis Association (MTTA) and was due to a lack of local competitive talent.
Six out of seven MTTA executive board members voted in favour of the decision to apply for passports by merit for four table tennis players, they said.
“The MTTA's decision is in line with the Maltese Olympic Committee’s approach to international sporting events is to be competitive rather than simply participating,” they said, hinting that foreign talent was needed to lift the bar.
“Unfortunately, there is a misconception by some athletes that being a national champion automatically qualifies an athlete to be part of Team Malta. This is not the case.”
Sports Minister Clifton Grima agreed, arguing that competing locally is simply not enough to raise the sport to an international level.
“We don’t want to just see our youth competing against each other… but we need to reach a higher level,” he said while noting that Portugal went through a similar shift over the past ten years, becoming one of the top teams in the world.
According to the International Table Tennis Federation’s world rankings, Portugal’s highest-rated player is Yu Fu, ranked 29 on the women’s singles top 100 list.
Grima emphasised that the government is not involved in athlete selection which is a decision made by the MOC.
Do the athletes on the list being shared really have no connection to Malta?
The vast majority of athletes on the list of 61 names being shared appear to have a prior connection to Malta. Furthermore, several of the names on the list being shared did not actually form part of Team Malta.
An exercise carried out by Times of Malta found that of the 61 athletes on the list, 53 are either Maltese, of Maltese descent, or have represented Malta or played with Maltese teams in past years.
Seven of the athletes on the list were granted a passport by sporting merit.
Up to twenty of the athletes listed did not participate in this year’s edition of the GSSE and are not listed as members of Team Malta.
How many medals did the athletes who were granted a passport win?
One of the basketball players who was granted a passport formed part of the 12-man basketball squad that won a silver medal at the games. The other basketball player formed part of the women’s team which lost the bronze medal game to Cyprus.
The table tennis players won gold medals in the men’s singles and women’s doubles competitions. They also won a silver medal in the men’s doubles and women’s singles competition and a bronze medal in the women’s singles.
In addition, they formed half of the team that won gold medals in both the men’s and women’s teams competitions.
The tennis player won a gold medal in the men’s singles competition and formed half of the team that won gold in the men’s doubles competition.
In total, players granted a passport won a total of five gold medals, two silver medals and a bronze medal. They also formed part of teams that won a further gold medal and silver medal, alongside other Maltese athletes.
Removing the individual accolades won by athletes awarded a passport would still see Malta topping the GSSE table with 89 medals, while also removing the medals won as part of a team would have Malta joint top with Cyprus on 87 medals.
Seven out of the 214 athletes representing Malta at the games were awarded a passport. One of the athletes who received a passport moved to Malta as a young child, while the other six do not appear to have any prior connection to Malta.
Table tennis was the discipline most clearly impacted by this practice, with four out of the eight table tennis players representing Malta having been granted a passport.
Malta would have still topped the GSSE table without the medals won by the athletes who were granted a passport.
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