South African swimming sensation Roland Schoeman has turned down a multi-million dollar offer to represent the Gulf state of Qatar, saying it was of "tremendous importance to me that I am part of the vibrant, challenging, frustrating, beautiful and above all hopeful country I call home".
"I have given instructions that the negotiations following the second approach from Qatar to swim for them should not be pursued any further," Schoeman said through a statement read by Swimming South Africa president Jace Naidoo in Johannesburg on Monday.
Schoeman and Ryk Neethling, members of South Africa's world record setting 4x100m freestyle team, were earlier this year both offered US$1-million a year for three years by the Gulf nation to defect and swim for them.
Last week, Croatian Olympic silver medalist Duje Draganja accepted a similar offer. "In Qatar I am getting conditions that a swimmer can only dream about," Draganja was quoted as saying.
Neethling refused Qatar's offer and called on Fina, the world governing body for aquatic sports, to take steps to preserve "the sanctity of nationhood" in sport.
Schoeman also declined the initial offer - and on Monday said that "after serious and thorough consideration" he had decided to turn down a second, even more lucrative one.
"You will understand that this was not a simple and straightforward decision," Schoeman said in his statement. "While I fully understand the immediate financial implications of this decision, I believe and trust that solutions to this problem will be found within South Africa.
'Sacrifice and commitment'
"I am acutely aware that South Africa is where it is today because of the sacrifice and commitment of large numbers of people over many years," Schoeman said.
"As well, that the stability and democracy we have attained thus far has not been founded on pursuing short-term gains. It has been based on a willingness to seek long-term solutions to promote the well being of all the people of South Africa. I believe that this should be true for me as well."
In making his choice, Schoeman said, he had "reconfirmed for myself that it is of tremendous importance to me that I am part of the vibrant, challenging, frustrating, beautiful and above all hopeful country I call home.
"Each one of my achievements has been accompanied by a tremendously strong sense of being an integral part of something enormously meaningful. That I am an African - and more specifically a South African.
"There is much that remains to be done to ensure that South Africa will be a haven to all its people," Schoeman said.
"I believe that sport serves to aid nation building, that it has the ability to unite people and can be used to work towards the greater good of all. It provides a vehicle that allows every person in South Africa to dream and to 'believe in the impossible'. I have a place to fulfil in this process.
"While I am significantly poorer today than I could have been, I feel tremendously blessed that it is Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika that will be played if I win a gold medal."
World records, gold medals
Schoeman, currently based in the United States, would have been a huge catch for Qatar. At the 2005 world championships in Montreal, he won the 50m freestyle and butterfly titles and collected silver in the 100m freestyle.
In the process, he became the second fastest swimmer ever in the 50m freestyle (21.69) and the first to break 23 seconds for the 50m butterfly, setting a new world record of 22.96.
Earlier in the year, at the short-course swimming World Cup in Berlin, Schoeman equalled the world record for the 100m short course freestyle (46.25). At the Stockholm leg of the series, he broke the world record in the 100m individual medley, clocking 52.51.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Schoeman won gold in the 4x100m, silver in the 100m and bronze in the 50m freestyle, becoming the first South African to win three medals at an Olympics - though his haul did not better Penny Heyns' two golds (100m and 200m breastroke) at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
The SA Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee has named all four members of the 4x100m freestyle team that took gold at Athens - Schoeman, Neethling, Lyndon Ferns and Darian Townsend - in South Africa's team for the 2006 Commonwealth Games to be held in Melbourne, Australia in March.