It has been said that anything worth competing for is most definitely worth paying for. Lately, African athletes have been “bought” by rich Middle East countries. Lured by obvious chances to compete in big events, better training facilities and the money, there has been a massive exodus of athletes, depriving African countries of their deserved success. In the words of Pablo Medina Uribe for Okay Africa, excellent African athletes are being used “to bolster otherwise anaemic national teams around the globe”. The lax International Association of Athletics Federations rules have made life easy for countries that seek to import talent from other countries. Around 333 athletes have switched allegiance from 2012 to 2016 alone and of these, Kenya has lost 47, Ethiopia 39, Morocco 18 and Nigeria has lost 8. Isaiah Kiplagat, the president of the Kenyan athletics federation once spoke to an English publication, The Times and called out the practice for what it is: exploitation.
Qatar’s Olympic team consists of two Sudanese-born runners, one born in Morocco, one in Nigeria, one in Egypt and one in Kenya. Where are the Qatari born athletes? Only two made the team. Qatar ranks seventh in the top destinations of athletes switching their allegiance. The top-ranked country is Bahrain which over the past five years has taken 18 Kenyan and 17 Ethiopian athletes with Ruth Jebet, a Kenyan born Bahraini athlete even winning the country its first gold medal. Every medal won by Bahrain has been won by athletes born outside the country. Maryam Yusuf Jamal who won a bronze in the 1,500 meter event was born in Ethiopia, Ruth Jebet and Eunice Kirwa who won silver in the marathon both hailing from Kenya. In fact, Bahrain’s current Olympic athletics team has five athletes born in Kenya, six in Ethiopia, four in Nigeria and one in Morocco. None of the athletes was born in Bahrain. In the Asian Games held in South Korea in 2014, 14 out of 22 individual athletics events were won by athletes of African origin, most of whom switched allegiance.
Sell-outs or responsible family leaders?
The major motivation for moves is almost always the financial security. The world should remember Saif Saeed Shaheen, formerly Stephen Cherono who shined for Qatar who broke Kenya’s dominance of the 3,000 metre steeplechase at the World Athletics Championships back in 2003 after six successive wins for the country. Cherono’s deal to defect from the Kenyan team to the Qatari gave him $1000 per month as compared to the almost $2,000 per year salary he got in Kenya. The New York Times even reported he had been offered a big $1 million for the change. Without getting trapped in the mire of emotions, most people would have gone for the money. Many athletes have ended up as paupers and the decision to move for the money makes sense for this new crop of athletes. It is easy to judge from far off and claim it is selfishness but when it is then apparent that the athletes have nothing, the majority again judges them for being irresponsible. Turning down the offers because of public sentiment would be foolishness. The simple issue is: Athletics in Africa should be rewarding otherwise more athletes will be lost. Everyone needs to earn a respectable living and why would these athletes be denied of the same?
The morality of countries buying the athletes is however a different issue altogether. The whole system is sickeningly crafted to mimic the slave trade with agents getting lifetime proceeds from sales of athletes. What is that? Why is that allowed in the 21st century? The IAAF should crack the whip on this practice that stinks of slavery and exploitation. It is again unfair to the destination countries’ athletes who are no longer being developed as there is a ready market of finished products out there. Why should Africa be the developer while other countries enjoy the benefits instead of nurturing their domestic talent? While the athletes cannot be judged for wanting better lives, the countries that buy them out are exploiting their need for success and this should be frowned upon. This is not the 19th century and buying Africans should be pushed out of fashion. African countries would also do good to reward their athletes adequately. More sponsors and more supporters will keep local talent local.