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Kenya: athletes for sale? No one ever thought of them as exports. For decades, patriotism had been the hallmark of their art. But in the last five years, Kenyan athletes have managed to give "patriotism" a new meaning. Wanjohi Kabukuru reports from Nairobi.

What was hitherto unimaginable is now a fact of life. Welcome to the world of Kenyan long-distance athletes. The celebrity Kenyan runners who share the mantle with Ethiopians and Moroccans have lately captured the world headlines not for their being first on the blue riband but for a different issue altogether--defecting to other lands. Europe and the Gulf states have already greatly benefited from the largesse offered by the Kenyan athletes; the latest beneficiary is George Bush's USA.


Of the Kenyan "exports", the most notable is the world 3000m steeplechase champion and record holder Stephen Cherono (now a Qatari by the name Saif Saaeed Shaheen). In 2002 during the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, Cherono won a gold medal for Kenya. In August 2003, he was granted Qatari citizenship and went on to win the world title in Paris in the same month.

He did not go alone. Several compatriots, among them Albert Chepkurui (now known as Abdullah Ahma Hassan), a 5000m runner, joined him in Qatar. Soon after, Leonard Mucheru and Abel Cheruiyot followed them to Bahrain. Others in Qatar are Daniel Kipkosgei (Rasheed Essa Ismael), Thomas Kosgei (Ali Thamer Kamel), Richard Yatich (Mubarak Shaami), and Gregory Konchellah (Youssef Saad Kamel).

Shaheen's victory in Paris rubbed Kenyan officials the wrong way, prompting the then sports minister, Najib Balala, to set up a commission of inquiry into what was then dubbed as a "passport for sale" scandal. Nothing came out of the inquiry.

Recently, Bernard Lagat followed Shaheen's footsteps. While he did not change his name, Lagat is no longer a Kenyan--instead he is a US citizen. While sporting the "spear and shield" emblem of Kenya, Lagat won medals at the Olympics and World Championships in 1500m and a number of gold medals at other international meets. He is also the second fastest man in the 1500m category. "I thought long and hard before changing my nationality," he explained, "but at the age of 30, I have to look to my future, after my running career has come to an end. I have lived in the US since 1996, I graduated from Washington State University and the US has been my permanent home for almost a decade. It is where I envisage living in the years to come."

Wilson Kipketer is another Kenyan who now runs for his adopted country, Denmark. Kipketer is best remembered for breaking Sebastian Coe's long-standing 800m record. Today he is a Dane. Lorna Kiplagat is another Kenyan who runs for The Netherlands. And then, there is another defector, the 22-year-old Nicholas Kemboi. Like Shaheen, Kemboi is now in Qatar in readiness for the summer world championships in Helsinki where he will represent the Gulf state.

David Nyaga is the latest defector to the oil-rich Qatar. In the 10th IAAF World Athletics Championships scheduled for next month, Nyaga will be representing Qatar under his new name, Daham Najim Bashir.

The main reason for these defections has been purely economic. "Poor remuneration, lackadaisical management and mistreatment of these athletes by Athletics Kenya is the main reason why our athletes are falling prey to the oil dollars offered by the gulf kingdoms," says Alloys Muganda, the sports editor of The People Daily.

This state of affairs has raised a storm in Nairobi. The athletes in question have had to contend with tags of "unpatriotic" and "sell-outs". Top officials in the Ministry of Sports and Athletics Kenya (AK--the body that supervises the country's athletes) have reacted with anger, threatening dire consequences for the athletes.

"We will declare these athletes as persona non grata and cannot permit them to enjoy facilities available in the country while they compete against us at world championships," warns the sports minister, Ochillo Ayacko. Echoing Ayacko's sentiments, Alfred Mutua, the government spokesman, has said the athletes will have to renew their visas and go through the scrutiny that other visitors to Kenya undergo each time they visit. Under Kenyan law dual nationality is illegal. "They cannot be allowed to enjoy both fruits, because the law is very explicit on dual citizenship," says Mutua.
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Author:Kabukuru, Wanjohi
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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