For a top-rate salary of US$1,000 a month, Kenyan and other African athletes are being shopped around the world's wealthiest track and field nations in a market that one leading administrator said yesterday was “like trading slaves”.
“It is exploitation,” Isaiah Kiplagat, the president of the Kenyan athletics federation, said. “It is happening with children as young as 15. Young people who aren't qualified to represent themselves are being deceived into changing nationality for a few shillings.”
Qatar is the main destination and the best buyer. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have also bought up foreign athletes, but athletes' managers approach Europe, too.
José María Odriozola, the president of the Spanish federation, said that he is contacted five or six times a year by agents representing foreign athletes and offering them as potential Spaniards. He said that last year he even had Olusoji Fasuba, the Nigerian who won the 60 metres gold at the World Indoor Championships in Valencia last month, phone him and offer to switch vests and run for Spain.
Alarm bells over the trade in Kenyan distance runners rang loudest at the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh last month, when Qatar, a Middle East nation with a population of less than a million and negligible history in distance running, finished third in the men's team event.
Cherono was deeply unpopular with his fellow Kenyans, although his reported salary - $1,000 a month for the rest of his life, plus significant performance bonuses and endorsements - is more than most of his peers could dream of.
The tightening of the rules by the IAAF, the sport's world governing body, however, merely forced the Qataris to switch from buying established stars to headhunting the most promising juniors. “People are going to Africa and buying young athletes,” Odriozola said. “They go to Kenya and they watch the races and then they make their offers. The selling itself is not big business, but for the managers, if their athletes go on to be successful, they then take 10 to 20 per cent of their incomes. For me, this is immoral. It is like trading slaves.
“In middle and long-distance, there are now at least 20 to 30 Kenyans or Ethiopians who are running at the top level under different flags. In Edinburgh, everyone was saying ‘the Africans are winning everything' but forgetting that Qatar is not Africa.”