The oil sheiks have joined the race for gold in athletics. Two years ago, Qatar won a gold medal at a World Championships in Athletics for the first time. At that time Saif Saaeed Shaheen had won at the 3,000 m steeplechase, which he also won in Helsinki on Tuesday. One day later, on Wednesday, Bahrain won their first medal ever in the World Championships’ history. Rashid Ramzi took the 1,500 m. But they originally come neither from Bahrain nor Qatar. Two years ago Shaheen was still a Kenyan and his name was Stephen Cherono. The Moroccan Ramzi became a Bahrain citizen in 2002.
Over a dozen athletes from Qatar and Bahrain are on the starting lists for distance races in Helsinki, most of them former Kenyans. In the steeplechase final there were not only three but six Kenyans running. Two were from Qatar and one from Bahrain.
Stephen Cherono was the one who started the desertion in Kenya. “Probably because of his transfer to Qatar all the problems have started. If he wouldn’t have transferred, may be it wouldn’t have come to this situation“, said the president of the Kenyan Federation (Athletics Kenya), Isaiah Kiplagat, who is also a council member of the IAAF. Kiplagat hopes that at least the transfers to Qatar will stop. He said that the son of Qatar’s Emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, said that he thinks the buyout of athletes should now be ended. “I think the Qatari just wanted to have athletes for the Asian Games next year. They have enough athletes for that meanwhile“, said Isaiah Kiplagat and added: „Furthermore the reaction in the international media was very critical and Qatar doesn’t have a good standing through this.”
Isaiah Kiplagat sees bigger problems in Bahrain. Two former Kenyans just won the 2,000 m steeplechase and the 1,500 m at the Junior World Championships in Marrakech. They were apparently made a couple of years younger in their new passports. „Because of earlier competitions of these athletes we can prove that they are older“, said Isaiah Kiplagat. The IAAF deals with the fraud suspicion at the moment.
Originally there was not much money involved in the switch of Stephen Cherono. Qatar promised the best Kenyan steeplechaser and 5,000 m runner a monthly lifetime pension of 1,000 US-Dollar. Compared to bonuses and money from sponsors it is a ridiculous amount. But Cherono changed his name to Shaheen and since that time wins races for Qatar instead for Kenya. Meanwhile there is more money involved. “However a world class athlete will earn a lot of money also as a Kenyan“, said Isaiah Kiplagat. He for example refers to the marathon world record holder Paul Tergat or the former world champion in the steeplechase Moses Kiptanui. Because of the high number of high class Kenyan runners it is enormously difficult to qualify for international championships. Renato Canova mentioned that these problems as well as financial and structural disadvantages are causing the athletes to leave. The Italian first worked as a coach with a group of Kenyans, among them also Stephen Cherono. Meanwhile Canova is head coach of Qatar.
About 40 Kenyan athletes followed in the meantime Saif Saaeed Shaheen’s example. They either start for Qatar or Bahrain. Meanwhile the IAAF prolonged the restriction from two to three years. But this regulation will probably not be enough to solve the problem. The runners are not allowed to run at international championships but they can still run at lucrative meetings and road races.
loyalty to native country
While Kenya’s president Mwai Kibaki asked the athletes of his country to show loyalty to their native country, the minister for sport Ochillo Ayacko suggested to let not train the disloyal athletes in Kenya anymore. Most of them still live in their former country. „That is not possible. We are a free country and can’t stop anybody to enter and train here“, said Isaiah Kiplagat.
With education against it
“We can only solve the problem with education at the schools. We try to work together with elite athletes“, said the president of the federation. And he explained that in individual cases Kenya will not be reluctant to a transfer of the country. “But only when it happens in a legal way“, Isaiah Kiplagat denounced the current practice. “Our biggest problem is the poverty.“ In schools in the Great Rift Valley, west highland, where most of the Kenyan top athletes come from, 16 year-old children are wooed away. „They come from poor families. You show those boys a 1,000 Dollar note and they have never seen so much money before. Even for 10 Dollar they would say: Yes, I come with you,” explained Isaiah Kiplagat. Also some teachers are involved in this. „They are our worst culprits.“
Although the former Ethiopian, Maryam Jamal, is starting for Bahrain in the 5,000 m race, normally women are not wooed away for religious reasons. When asked about the problem, the Kenyan world class runner Joyce Chepchumba responded drastically: “In my opinion these are rubbish countries.”