Athletics: Kings of Africa fall prey to oil-rich poachers

Fuelled by the petrodollar, Gulf states have been luring world-class athletes from poor countries to run in their colours. Now they face a crackdown
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The Independent Online

Delegates at the International Association of Athletics Federations Congress, which got under way in Helsinki four days before the 10th World Championships begin there, ratified a proposal to alter the timescale involved for athletes wishing to change their allegiance.

In the past, athletes have been able to compete for a new country as long as they have not competed for their original country for three years - although that period could be reduced to one year if both countries involved were in agreement.

Following yesterday's decision, which received virtually no resistance, athletes proposing to switch will have to get their new passports before starting the three-year waiting period. This brings the IAAF rules into line with those of the International Olympic Committee.

"Several delegates voiced the desire to make the rules even tougher, and our officers will be looking into the possibilities," said IAAF spokesman Nick Davies. "You have got to be careful about bringing in draconian measures because then you run into human rights issues. It is a very tricky area, because if you were a lawyer you wouldn't have a problem if you were offered a job in another country."

The difference lies, however, in the fact that lawyers do not directly represent their country, and what Qatar and Bahrain have attempted to do in the last three years is simply buy in talent, much of it Kenyan.

Thirteen Kenyans are thought to be in the process of changing their nationalities to represent either of these states, and those who have already taken the golden path have already reflected glory upon their new employers.

The most celebrated - or notorious - case within athletics is that of Stephen Cherono, who won the 3,000 metres steeplechase title for Kenya at the Manchester Commonwealth Games of 2002, and a year later beat several of his former countrymen to the world title, this time for Qatar under his new identity of Saif Saaeed Shaheen.

There were clear suggestions that the agreement between the two nations for Cherono to compete in a new vest within a year was not unrelated to a large contribution made by Qatar towards the renovation of a stadium at Eldoret in north-west Kenya.

Shaheen was prevented from competing in last year's Olympics because Kenya's National Olympic Committee, rather than their national athletics federation, had jurisdiction. The NOC is headed by the legendary Olympian Kip Keino, who has compared Qatar's policy to "slavery", adding: "These countries are buying people, and something has to be done about it."

Within a month of the Athens Games, however, Shaheen had provided his adopted country with another starburst of glory by reducing the 3,000m steeplechase record to 7min 53.63sec.

And here we come to the nub of the matter. Shaheen, who admitted that his move had been for financial considerations, earned a $100,000 (£56,200) bonus from the Qatari government for his efforts, a payment which supplemented what was believed to be a guarantee of $1,000 per month for the rest, not just of his career, but of his life.

Such inducements are hard to resist. Shaheen was earning only £1,300 a year to run for Kenya, and there was no guarantee of how long he would be picked for big events given his native country's traditional strength in depth.

Such calculations have already changed the nature of international athletics. A scan of this year's world rankings for the major Olympic-middle distance events tells its own story, as the new monickers - Qat and Brn - announce their achievements. Naturally, none of these adopted athletes train in their adopted countries. Far too hot.

Three Bahrain athletes are currently in the world's top 20 - Bela Mansoor Ali and Rashid Ramzi are respectively sixth and 13th, while fifth place is filled by Youssef Said Kamel - who used to be known as Gregory Konchellah, son of the 1987 and 1991 world 800m champion Billy Konchellah.

Ramzi, who switched nationality from Morocco in 2002, tops the 1500m rankings with a time of 3min 30sec, five places ahead of Qatar's Daham Najim Bahsir, while Mansoor Ali also makes the top 20.

Qatar's Mushir Salim Jawher is in the 5,000m top 20, while Shaheen leads the steeplechase standings ahead of Kenya's Paul Kipsiele Koech. Twelfth and 13th place are filled by two more Qatar athletes - Jamal Bilal Salem and Obaid Musa Amer, a 19-year-old who was formerly known as Moses Kipkirui.

Despite the latest IAAF ruling, those lists look likely to become even fuller of Qat and Brn as the two states seek to avoid the restrictions by signing up talented youngsters yet to represent their native country.

Earlier this year the Kenyan sports minister, Ochillo Ayacko, responded to reports that 40 athletes had either defected or were becoming citizens of Qatar and Bahrain by announcing that runners who switch nationality would be treated as foreigners in their native land and would need to apply for visas to visit. "These athletes have forsaken Kenya and can no longer enjoy Kenya's goodwill," he added.

Qatar's ambitions have not been restricted to the athletics track. Last year, Qatar sought to buy itself a World Cup football team, and had been on the point of signing up a large group of German, Brazilian and African players from the Bundesliga when Fifa, world football's governing body, fearing the consequences of allowing such a precedent, introduced a five-year residential qualification.

It was around this time that Dennis Oliech, a 19-year-old forward for the Kenyan football team, revealed on the eve of the African Cup of Nations that he had turned down an offer of £1.6m to play for Qatar.

"I believe I have made the right decision," Oliech said. "I love my country and would not take anything to change my identity."

Admirable sentiments - but the Kenyan authorities know that, in many other cases, loyalty may cost them extra.

Out of Africa: Three athletes who run under new flags

Saif Saaeed Shaheen

Won the Commonwealth title for Kenya in 2002 as Stephen Cherono. The following year, won the world title for Qatar under his new name. Ignored his brother Abraham afterwards. 'I'm from Qatar now,' he said.

Rashid Ramzi

Left Morocco for Bahrain in 2002, although he still trains in Ifrane, base for Morocco's world and Olympic 1500m champion Hicham El Guerrouj, whose pictures adorn Ramzi's walls.

Youssef Saad Kamel

Fifth in the world rankings, he was allowed to race for Bahrain because he had not already run for his native Kenya. Born Gregory Konchellah, he is the son of Billy, the world 800m champion in 1987 and 1991.