40 defections later, Kenyan athletes still find grass greener on the other side

Saturday August 17 2013

PHOTO | FILE Wilson Kipketer of Denmark competes in the men’s 800m on August 25, 2004 during the Athens Olympic Games.
PHOTO | FILE Wilson Kipketer of Denmark competes in the men’s 800m on August 25, 2004 during the Athens Olympic Games.
PHOTO | OLIVIER MORIN Bernard Lagat (R) of the United States competes in heat 1 of the men's 5000 metres event at the 2013 IAAF World Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on August 13, 2013.
PHOTO | OLIVIER MORIN Bernard Lagat (R) of the United States competes in heat 1 of the men's 5000 metres event at the 2013 IAAF World Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on August 13, 2013.
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Mention sports defections and memories, for those in the know back then, come flooding of the painful years in which athletes, prominent among them Wilson Kipketer, Lornah Kiplagat and Saeef Saeed Shaheen (formerly Stephen Cherono) crossed borders in moves that would haunt their ‘loyal’ counterparts for long spells.

Statistics indicate that  there have been at least 40 athletes who have switched allegiances and taken on new identities and/or nationalities, mostly to European and Gulf states, after being offered lucrative deals by their adopted countries. Qatar and Bahrain are the key buyers of talented Kenyans.

Qatari and Bahraini sports bodies, blessed with oil riches but cursed with a climate wholly unsuited to distance running for most of the year, have had to outsource for a chance at international glory. Despite the name and biographical changes these athletes are recognisably Kenyan.

Kipketer was first noticed by local legend, Kipchoge Keino, who recommended him to St. Patrick’s High School, Iten, for education and athletics refinement under reputed Irish coach and principal, Colm O’connell. In 1990, while in Denmark studying Electronic Engineering, Kipketer stunned Kenya and the world by announcing that he had taken up Danish citizenship.

Although he was not allowed to represent his adopted country in either World Championship or the Olympics between 1994 and 1996, Kipketer set the world ablaze, the culmination of it being victories in 16 of out 18 800m races in 1994 alone.

Obliterated local predecessor

In the same year, Track and field News Magazine ranked him number one after registering a world-leading time of 1:43:29. So good was Kipketer that he obliterated local predecessor, Paul Ereng’, the following year, when he won 10 out of 12 800m events, again. And he did it in style, twice attaining the then impossible sub 1:43 mark in one season; it had only been achieved by Brazilian Joaquim Cruz.

His conspicuous absence from the 1996 Olympics was, without a doubt, felt as he was easily the strongest 800m runner in the world at the time. He remained undefeated throughout 1996, prevailing over all the three 800m Atlanta Olympic medallists.

When the season ended, he set a new personal best of 1:41.83 in Rieti with the fastest 800m time in the world in 12 years, and only 0.1 short of the World Record. In 1997, Kipketer celebrated full Danish citizenship beginning with an 800m gold in March in the Paris World Indoors Championship, breaking Paul Ereng’s 1:44:84 during the event’s heats. In the final, he took yet another second off the world record with an entertaining 1:42.67, and shattering his own records several times a month later.

For former world record holder Shaheen, who now runs for Qatar, he receives a lifetime monthly wage of $5,000, and $250,000 if he wins a world or Olympic gold medal.

The 31-year-old Shaheen, brother of former 5000m and 10,000m world champion, Christopher Kosgey, announced himself to the world during the 1999 World Youth Championships when he set the world junior steeplechase record before winning the senior event two years later in the Commonwealth Games.

Shaheen switched allegiance to Qatar and, like Kipeketer, was not allowed to represent his new country in the 2004 Olympics. He, however, went on to beat that year’s Olympic steeplechase winner, Ezekiel Kemboi, a month later with a world-record time of 7:53.63. In 2006, he won the 3000m silver medal at the 2006 IAAF World Indoor Championships, and set a number of Asian records, as well as completing his 5000m and steeplechase double at the 2006 IAAF World Championships.

Albert Chepkurui, a former 5000m runner who later joined Shaheen in Qatar under the new name of Abdullah Ahmed Hassan, once said: “Athletics is a short career and I went there looking for a better life and better prospects… It’s not that I don’t like Kenya, I love it.”

Even as defections are generally looked at with distaste, Dutch long-distance runner, Lorna Kiplagat, may be a different story. The athlete has used her connections and earnings to set up a high-altitude athletics training camp in the environs of Eldoret.

Lorna, the 2007 IAAF gold medallist, who also took part in the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics, got her Dutch passport in 2003 and has since competed for the Netherlands. She also took three straight World Road Running Championship titles from 2006 to 2008, and her best times over the 20km and the half marathon from 2007 to 2011 remain the second-fastest times ever.

She also has the Rotterdam, Osaka and Los Angeles Women’s Marathon titles to her name.

She stole the cross-country title in the sweltering Mombasa heat when the event was held in Kenya for the first time ever in 2007. Earlier, in February 2007, she had competed at the Kenyan Cross Country Championships as an invited athlete and won the women’s race, ahead of the elite former compatriots.

She also has four world records, and the Dutch marathon record, besides having won the 2011 London Marathon.

A different kind of medal

Tareq Mubarak Taher, born Dennis Kipkurui Sang, might be an athlete but he’s also the record holder in the race controversy segment. The middle distance runner for Bahrain has been there and done it all, with allegations of falsifying his birth date to take part the 2005 World Youth championships in Marakech, Morocco, to feigning sickness to facilitate running for his new country the following year.

When he won the 2000m steeplechase in the youth event, Taher said he had “made it look easy”, letting his rivals lead the race until he broke away at the final water jump. With a time of 5:23.95 he set a new World Youth best performance that set the pace for his 3,000m steeplechase speciality.

His personal best time of 8:06.13 minutes is also the Bahraini national record, set in July 2009 at the Athens Grand Prix in Greece. Soon, questions arose over Taher’s identity when Istavan Gyulai, then- IAAF Secretary General, asked Athletics Kenya’s Isaiah Kiplagat, to investigate reports of alterations of birth dates.

His former name, substituted with an Arabic name upon arrival in Bahrain, and his reported birth date, were subjects of investigation for the next two years. While Bahraini media reported him as having been born on December 1, 1989 as Dennis Sang, both Kenya and the IAAF claim that Taher was born Dennis Kipkurui Keter, born on March 24, 1984. He was, however, allowed to continue with his career as investigations were continued.

After lengthy probe, Taher was found guilty of age falsification and, in August 2007, sanctions levelled against the runner; he was stripped of his 2006 World Junior and Youth titles and 2007 World Cross country Championship victory.

Another such ‘defector’ is Barhaini Yusuf Saad Kamel, formerly Gregory Meritei Konchellah, but whose move may not have had as much impact. But Konchellah’s reason for moving was not so much about money as it was about stiffness of competition. He came into the scene when Wilfred Bungei and Alex Kipchirchir Rono were running away with every other title, at home and abroad.

Many believed that Kenyan-born American, Bernard Lagat, would have been a perfect prop for Wilfred Bungei in the middle and long distance battle in Africa. Like Bungei, Lagat, a native of Nandi County, came into the limelight as the ilk of Christopher Kosgey (Shaheen’s elder brother) and Dennis Kipketer were fading off the scene. 

Tormented Kenyan runners

The loss of Lagat to the US deprived Kenya of a disciplined, combative and, by stroke of luck, a man who knew how to stay out of injury when it mattered. The American record holder in the 1500m, and 3,000m indoors and outdoors, as well as the 5000m outdoors, has a six-time appearance in the world championship and Olympic medallists’ roll, which shows how much Kenya has missed from him.

Lagat tormented Kenyan runners in 2007 Osaka Worlds, winning 5000m, and won. He also won silver and bronze in the 5,000m and 1,500m races respectively, and in the continental 3000m gold and Croatia, as well as in the Doha World Championships.

Moses Ndiema Kipsiro, 2010 Commonwealth 5000m winner, holds the record for the most clandestine of defections. His, it is believed, was a case of assessing the intensity of competitions from fellow Sabaot, Moses Masai, and, with a clever trek across Mount Elgon, became a Ugandan, earning himself a chance to meet and beat Masai and company in the 2012 Olympics.

Kipsiro, born 27 years ago, has won medals in the 5000m at the African Championships and All-Africa Games. He completed a 5000/10,000m double at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. and is a four-time Uganda cross-country champion, having won every race from 2008 to 2011. He is the Ugandan record holder for the 3000m and 5000m on the track, as well as in the 10K road distance.

Kipsiro made his first senior international appearance at the 2005 World Championships in Athletics, running in the heats of the 5,000m.
At the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, he came seventh in the 5000m, and placed in the top 30 of both the long and short races at the 2006 IAAF World Cross Country Championships.

However, it was on the track that he made his first impact, taking the 5000m silver and the 10,000 metres gold at the 2006 African Championships. In 2007, Kipsiro decided to focus on track running and secured the 5000m title at the All-Africa Games. He would maintain his good form, only to be beaten by Bernard Lagat at the 2007 World Athletics, a race which Kenya’s hope in Eliud Kipchoge could only manage bronze, and took silver in the 2008 World Championships.

Another defector, Leonard Muchera, who won the Tiberias Marathon in 2007, found himself “stateless” after shifting allegiance to the Gulf. Muchera relinquished his Kenyan citizenship in 2004 and became an athletic hireling, by the name of Musher Salem Jawher, for the state of Bahrain.

But with his win came rejection from his adopted nation. At the race press conference he had said that the Bahraini Government had “no problem” with his participation in the event. But within 24 hours they had stripped him of his Bahraini citizenship for having entered Israel illegally on his old Kenyan passport.

Little known Mike Kosgey Rotich, is the latest to join the list of defectors. The 31-year-old 2003 Paris Marathon winner is believed to have defected in July this year and has since joined the French Army. A year earlier, Rotich finished second in the 2002 Milan Marathon behind five-time Boston Marathon Winner, Robert Cheruiyot, in a photo-finish, with third-placed, Daniele Caimmi (2:08:59).

Why the exodus?

So, why the massive exodus? The soft-spoken Shaheen attributes to lack of compensatory remuneration. He rues the fact that local athletes drown in their blood, sweat and tears to fly the Kenyan flag but do not get due recognition from the government.

Economic hardship aside, some other are irked by the lack of recognition in their own country, as well as the difficulty in being selected for Kenya’s team for major tournaments.

Even though the government has made attempts to give appealing cash incentives for excelling athletes, it is the way they are treated after their active careers that may still spur them abroad.