Money before country? Kenyan athletes changing the nation
The 20 year old Kenyan-born Ruth Jebet had managed to earn the oil rich gulf state its first ever Olympic gold medal. The previous day another Kenyan-born athlete, Eunice Jepkirui, had also won Bahrain a silver medal in the women’s marathon. During last year’s Olympics, over 30 athletes born in Kenya were representing different countries in the games in what has now stoked heated debate over Kenyan-born athletes switching nationalities and their allegiance to other countries for more money. Indeed Bahrain, Turkey and USA are some of the countries that have enticed the athletes to take up citizenship.
Kenya has traditionally taken pride of place in the global arena for producing world class middle and long distance running talent. It is also home to training grounds that attract athletes, both elite and novice, from across the world. In Iten a small town in Rift Valley, Western Kenya, the High Altitude Training Centre hosts hundreds of athletes from the world at one given time. Situated at over 7900 feet above sea level, the air in this town has relatively less oxygen than that at sea level, helping the athletes‘ bodies acclimatize to a lack of oxygen. The altitude training is encouraged for building up endurance, speed and strength which explains why Kenyan athletes can more comfortably handle long distance races.
But it has also been a hunting ground for countries keen on tapping into Kenyan talent. With fat cheque books and enviable incentives like free scholarships, they lure away athletes who struggle to even get recognition in national athletics in Kenya. While many theories have been put forward as to why the athletes decide to denounce their Kenyan citizenship, change names and move to other countries, financial motivation and the tough competition back home feature prominently.
Akdag Alex Kipkirui, who has represented Turkey in many Olympics, dropped his Kenyan nationality for a Turkish one three years ago. The 25 year old steeplechase runner says it was a personal decision which was informed by his family’s situation at the moment. “I really thought it through. I had four other siblings, my parents were not well off and were struggling to even raise school fees for us. So when I went for the trials at the Iten training grounds and one coach noticed my skills, he approached me and asked me if I would be interested in relocating to Turkey. It was tough at first for me, but I had to make a decision. I have never regretted it,” Alex told Fairplanet, insisting that he intends to run for Turkey as long as he can. What he earns he is able to send back home and is now paying for his siblings‘ education and has also helped set up businesses for his parents.
Alia Basma, a Kenyan who runs for Bahrain, shares his sentiments. Her Kenyan name is Miriam Jeptoo and she has been representing Bahrain in the women’s marathon since she changed her nationality two years ago. For Alia, Kenya’s stiff competition inspired her to look for greener pastures.
She was lucky to have received an offer from the Middle East country. She says besides the financial gains she has also managed to get a scholarship, something she would never have dreamed of in Kenya. “There are so many talented Kenyans, some who are way better than me. That means that to even make it to the national competitions where one at least stands a chance of winning and getting picked to represent the country in international competitions is very slim.“
„Again there is no motivation to be an athlete back home. Even schools have no scholarships for athletes. It is a whole different world out here which is why I am happy I accepted the offer,” said Alia.
But while the athletes seem to have found a good life and settled in, back home a section of Kenyans have always treated those who denounce their citizenship as traitors and accuse them of selling their nationalities for a song. “We understand that people have to look at their welfare, but you can never put a price at your nationality and country no matter how poorly you think of your country,” said Erick Muli, a Kenyan sportsman.
His sentiments were echoed by British media during the European athletics championships when the Telegraph branded Kenyan Turks participating in the games 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. Prior to their transfer, they could probably not pick it out on a map,” write Ben Bloom, a correspondent for the Telegraph.
But Alex feels the world is unfair to them and insists that he and other athletes who have shifted allegiance still love their country, but wish the Kenyan sports industry would clean up its mess.
“Trust me, there is no place like home and there is always the part of me that misses running for Kenya. But as long as the sporting industry is still beleaguered by rampant corruption and the athletes who work so hard to put the country on the global map are still living in squalor, I can’t go back home, no matter what anyone says,” he said.