In just 12 days’ time, the world’s focus will shift towards Brazil where the Olympic Games will be staged in the scenic coastal city of Rio de Janeiro.
The “Cariocas”, as Rio de Janeiro residents are popularly referred to, are a football-mad lot, but for three weeks they will shift their focus to the athletics track where all eyes will be on Kenyans for right and wrong reasons.
Right because Kenya has dominated global distance running ever since Nyantika Maiyoro burst into the global limelight in 1954, and wrong because the Western media incessantly claims that such dominance is dope-tainted.
Granted, the emergence of latter day doping cheats can’t be wished away, but, by and large, Kenya has proved to the world untold times that it’s a country that has an endless production of world champions.
And at the Rio Olympics, such production will be evident with no less than 20 Kenya-born track stars expected to feature for their adopted nations at the three-week sporting showcase.
From USA to Bahrain, Bosnia-Herzegovina to Azerbaijan, Kenya’s track exports will be out to seek glory under their new flags, singing unfamiliar national anthems.
USA will field five ex-Kenyans led by the indefatigable, 41-year-old Bernard Lagat.
It will be a special Olympics in stars and stripes for the veteran from Tucson, Arizona, but made in Nandi County.
His younger sister, Viola Lagat, is also living her athletics dream after making the Kenyan team to Rio from the gruelling Olympic trials held in Eldoret three weeks ago.
The veteran Lagat featured for Kenya at the 2000 (Sydney) and 2004 (Athens) Olympics before switching nationalities and representing the US wearing the stars and stripes at the 2008 (Beijing), 2012 (London) and, now, 2016 Rio Olympics.
According to USA Track and Field, the record-breaking Lagat will be the oldest American to compete on the track at the Olympics and second oldest athlete after Jogn Deni who competed in the 50-kilometre walk at the age of 49 at the 1952 Olympics.
His sister Viola, a Florida State alumna, will compete in the 1,500 metres race in Rio.
Team USA has four other Kenya-born and bred stars, all of them serving in the US Army.
They include Paul Chelimo who finished third in the 5,000 metres race won by Lagat representing the US Army team.
“I joined the Army to represent the United States, and the best way to represent my country is to be an Olympian,” he told USA Track and Field after qualifying, adding that he always looked up to Lagat for inspiration.
“I’ve always looked up to Bernard Lagat, and I’m trying to fashion my racing style to be like him in the future. I’m hoping that when he retires I’m going to take over. Today he won, but next time I’m taking over,” Chelimo said.
Hillary Bor, also of the USA Army, qualified too for Team USA in the steeplechase after finishing second at last month’s US trials in Eugene, Oregon.
“I became a citizen in 2013. When I joined the military I stopped running, and then I started running for fun,” he said after qualifying.
“Last year was when I thought I had a chance (to make the Olympics) and started my coaching programme up to now. I can’t believe I made the team.”
Two of the USA’s three representatives in the 10,000 metres race in Rio will also be former Kenyans, Shadrack Kipchirchir and Leonard Korir, and both are with the US Army.
Kenya could have easily fielded six athletes in Rio, but the sixth prospect, Stanley Kebenei, was unfortunate in the steeplechase qualifiers.
“Kebenei fell on the last water jump. He’d most likely have made it as well,” Lagat told lifestyle from his US base last week.
Lagat, who was born in Kapsabet, Nandi County, on December 12, 1974, is quite a hit in his adopted nation and was in the headlines when he donated his 2010 indoor athletics season bonus earnings to the Haiti Relief Fund.
USA aside, Bahrain will also field the biggest legion of Kenya-born stars at the Rio Games led by Asian steeplechase record holder and world junior champion Ruth Chebet.
The others are Abraham Rotich (800 metres), Benson Seuri (1,500m); John Koech (3,000m steeplechase); Albert Rop (5,000m), Ruth Jebet (3,000m steeplechase) and marathoners Rose Chelimo, Eunice Kirwa and Eunice Chumba.
But perhaps the most bizarre entry in Rio is that of Evans Kiplagat Chebet who will wear the Azerbaijan colours to compete in the marathon.
Kiplagat has lived in Azerbaijan since April 20, 2015, and acquired Azeri citizenship on April 26 this year.
But he’s not the typical man you would bump into in the streets of the capital Baku.
However, he is a man on the move as Azerbaijan is the second stop for the 28-year-old who was previously in the process of acquiring Russian citizenship after competing in the 2014 Russian Championships, finishing fifth in the 5,000 metres and sixth in the 10,000 metres.
He also finished 19th in the half marathon race at this month’s European Championships in Amsterdam in a race Turkey’s Kenyan import, Ozbilan Kaan Kigen, finished second.
Yes, you guessed it!
Born in Keiyo district as Mike Kipruto Kigen on January 5, 1986, Ozbilan will be among half a dozen Kenyans in Turkey’s team to the Rio Games.
They include the new European 10,000 metres champion Yasemin Can who was originally Vivian Jemutai.
Other Kenyans in the red Turkish colours are steeplechasers Tarik Langat Akdag and Polat Kemboi Arikan, Ali Kaya (formerly Stanley Kiprotich Mukche, 5,000m and 10,000m) and Ilham Tanui Ozbilen (1,500m).
Others are Aras Kaya (Amos Kibitok) who will run in the steeplechase.
But the Kenyan Turks drew the chagrin of British media during the European championships with The Telegraph terming their showing up in the red Turkish colours as a “disgraceful farce”.
“The majority of the athletes who were born and raised elsewhere but will represent Turkey at the European Championships this week have barely even set foot in the country,” athletics correspondent Ben Bloom wrote in The Telegraph ahead of the European Championships.
“Prior to their transfer, they could probably not pick it out on a map.”
But for Lagat, taking up USA’s stars and stripes was all about securing a future for himself and his children after his professional running career is over.
“I thought long and hard before changing my nationality but … I have to look to my future after my running career has come to an end,” Lagat, who also studied at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, said in a recent interview.
Indeed many of the defectors have changed allegiance to secure their futures.
They include Lucia Kimani-Marcetic who will show up in Rio for her third Olympics representing Bosnia in the marathon.
Running in Austria’s Salzburg Marathon in 2004, she met and fell in love with the man who would become her husband, Bosnian-Serb Sinisa Marcetic.
She told AFP in a recent interview that it wasn’t easy for her to take up Bosnian citizenship as her family was quite uneasy.
“They were like, Lucie, you must be crazy, how can you go to that place? They are always fighting, killing each other,” he recalled.
Just like Lagat, 36-year-old Kimani-Marcetic will set new records in Rio by becoming the first Bosnian runner to feature at three Olympic Games.
Meanwhile, Qatar, the nation that started the avalanche spiriting away Kenyan talent, most significantly starting with world steeplechase record holder Said Saaeed Shaheen (Stephen Cherono), will also have a Kenya-born runner in their Rio team.
Essa Ismail Rasheed (Daniel Kipkosgei) will compete in the marathon, having competed in the maroon Qatari colours for the last 12 years.
He won the 10,000m gold medal for the Qataris at the 2005 Asian Championships and will be looking to end his career on a high in Rio.
Meanwhile, Viola Lagat, who schooled in Nandi and Uasin Gishu before travelling to Florida for her university education, says the Rio Olympics will split their Nandi home into two with her brother running in US colours and she representing Kenya.
“I think it will be a split but there’s no way they are going to support me and leave my brother and when I’ll be racing I’m sure everybody will be cheering me and when my brother is running, they will be cheering him and, of course, the Kenyans in the race too,” she says.
The Lagat siblings share a coach, James Li, who is also assistant coach of the University of Arizona’s track and field team and head coach of the university’s cross-country team.
“In a way, we are training partners in a few work-outs and runs we do,” Bernard told Lifestyle last week.
Interestingly, two other Lagat siblings are athletes, too, and both soldiers with one running for the Kenya Army team and the other for the US Army!
“My brother Nathan Lagat runs for the Kenya Army and my other brother Robert Cheseret runs for the US Army,” she tells us.
Viola says changing citizenship is a personal choice, and something that her parents in Kipsirwo, Nandi County, Richard Kiplagat Leting and Marsalina Rotich, have given their children a free hand to make decisions about.
They have attended most of Bernard Lagat’s races at the Kenyan trials in Eldoret, and they travelled with a busload of relatives to cheer Viola on to her first Olympics.
“But for me, I always wanted to run for Kenya ... My dream is to win and get that Kenyan flag at the end of the race,” was her parting shot as she departed back to Team Kenya’s High Performance Training Centre in Eldoret to prepare for the following day’s trip to Nairobi where the team was presented with the Kenyan flag at State House by President Uhuru Kenyatta. A signal that they have the State’s blessings to go out there and take on the rest of the world ... and on fellow Kenyans!
Athletes change nationality for myriad reasons
Talent drain will continue depleting Kenya of its sporting stars for as long as the country fails to establish academies and scholarships to support talented sportsmen and women.
Hardly do universities offer sports scholarships, with Strathmore, USIU and Kenyatta Universities perhaps the only ones that stand out in their recognition of sporting talent.
And that’s what US track legend Bernard Lagat realised in 2004 when, after failing to get a scholarship at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, he shifted base to USA where a lucrative sports scholarship was waiting for him at the Washington State University.
Running for the WSU “Cougars” changed his life, forever.
And it’s the sort of advice he bequeathed to his young sister Viola Cheptoo Lagat, also a world class athlete who will run for Kenya at next month’s Rio Olympic Games.
“My brother Bernard is the one who actually brought me into running because after high school I wasn’t much into running and I just wanted to go to Australia and study,” says 27-year-old Viola.
“But he told me that if I wanted to have my school fees, I would have to start training and get a scholarship to the US and that’s when I started training and then I was offered a scholarship to the US,” recalls Viola who schooled at Kipsirwo Primary School close by her parents’ home in Nandi County, before joining Itigo Girls High School and later completing her Form Three and Four at St Monica’s in Kitale.
Viola landed a track scholarship at Central Arizona Junior College near Phoenix, Arizona, and, two years later, joined the prestigious Florida State University where she did a double major in sociology and nursing.
Athletics Kenya’s Nairobi branch chairman Barnabas Korir also benefited from a track scholarship, but gives four different reasons why talented Kenyans are fleeing the country in droves.
“First we have so many athletes in this country and to make a cut at the national trials for major championships like the Olympic Games and World Championships is difficult,” he says.
“Secondly, just like any other Kenyan who wants to look for greener pastures, athletes change nationality for financial gain.
“Thirdly, there are those athletes who change nationality because they have been away for long and have an affinity for their adopted country, like is the case for the US-based athletes.
“And then there is marriage.”
But Korir, who is currently with the Kenyan team at the IAAF World Junior Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, isn’t too happy that not as many Kenyans are taking up sports scholarships to study, either because of poor grades, or simply due to mere lack of interest.
“I have been sending athletes to the USA for track scholarship, including successful ones like Betsy Saina who will run for Kenya in the 10,000 metres at the Rio Olympics, and Hillary Bor who is running for the USA in the steeplechase,” he explains.
“There are so many scholarships but our athletes either don’t have academic qualifications, or they just don’t want to go to college.”
Korir says currently, he has secured two scholarships for members of the Kenyan junior team competing at the Poland championships.
But while one has shown interest, the other doesn’t want to take up the offer.
“This is unlike our generation where we were desperate for these scholarships,” he adds.
It is such better academic and professional opportunities abroad that led to former national football team Harambee Stars striker Mike Okoth settling for a Belgian citizenship for his talented son Divock Origi.
Divock has since transformed into a super star at both the Belgian national team and English Premier League Club Liverpool.
And Okoth has no regrets!