- Cases of home runners being defeated by ‘foreigners’ often leave those who consider themselves loyal utterly riled
- Economic hardship aside, some 'defectors' 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
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.