Athletics: Cherono starts a new craze - real cross country

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The Independent Online

The steeplechasing artist formerly known as Stephen Cherono is unrepentant. Saif Saaeed Shaheen, as he now wishes to be called, has no regrets about selling his Kenyan talent, his Kenyan identity and his Kenyan nationality - all for a few dollars more. At the Weltklasse meeting in Zurich on Friday the 20-year-old ranas an adopted son of Qatar. His winning time in the 3,000m steeplechase, 8min 2.48sec, broke the Qatari and Asian area records.

It was also the fastest time in the world this year. The former Cherono, a Commonwealth champion at 19 for Kenya in Manchester 13 months ago, seems certain to strike gold for Qatar at the World Championships in Paris next week. His appearance on the medal podium in a Qatari tracksuit would bring the question of shifting nationalities into sharp focus.

Saaeed Shaheen has been a Qatari citizen for just eight days. He says his international transfer - and that of his fellow Kenyan native Albert Chepkurui, who finished fifth in the 5,000m in Zurich under the new identity of Ahmad Hassan Abdullah - was not motivated by a $1m carrot, as had been rumoured, but admits that money was a prime factor. "Qatar will pay $1,000 every month, even after my retirement," he said. "In Kenya there is nothing like this. Qatar is a country with a lot of opportunities."

Indeed. Cherono compared his switch to the one made by Wilson Kipketer, the 800m world-record holder, from Kenya to Denmark. Kipketer, though, moved to Copenhagen to study engineering. He also married a Dane. Cherono has changed his nationality to benefit from the backing of the Qatari federation and the Al-Saad club.

His move has not impressed the International Association of Athletics Federations. It is hardly surprising. In Paris, Saaeed Shaheen will be competing against his own brother, Abraham Cherono, who will be representing Kenya.

His presence in a Qatari vest will also highlight the injustice of Yamile Aldama's absence. Aldama, a Cuban native, heads the women's triple-jump rankings this summer with 15.29m. She is married to a British citizen and has lived in east London since November 2001, but will not be in Paris because she is not due to qualify for a British passport until November 2004.

It just so happens that Aldama's fate enhances the medal prospects of Magdalin Martinez, who switched to Italian nationality in a year after being overlooked in favour of Aldama for the Cuban Olympic team in 2000. It is also ironic that Martinez is coached by Fiona May, the former British long jumper who will be attempting to win a third world title in that event for Italy in Paris.

The great pity for Kenya in losing Stephen Cherono comes from being deprived of a young man who is already assuming the mantle of Moses Kiptanui, the three-times steeplechase world champion who was also world record holder at 5,000m. In Ostrava in June, Cherono-that-was eclipsed Hicham El Guerrouj in the Moroccan's senior 5,000m debut, running 12min 48.81sec - a time that only two men, Haile Gebrselassie and Daniel Komen, have bettered.

Saaeed Shaheen-that-is actually likes the 1500m best. "The problem is at my home the steeplechase is a family affair," he said. As well as Abraham Cherono, who took the Commonwealth bronze medal behind him in Manchester last year, he is also the brother of Christopher Kosgei, who won the steeplechase world title in Seville in 1999 - in the Kenyan colours the former Stephen Cherono has chosen to forsake.

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