It has become the norm to see Kenyan-born athletes line up for other nations at major competitions around the world. They’re represented on almost any continent you can think of. Kenyan athletes have competed for countries including the USA, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and several others.
Ambitious teams stacking their teams with foreign-born talent is nothing new. Luring them with cash rewards and other benefits has come to be known as the “cash-for-flags” phenomenon, and has been the subject of protests by sections of sports stakeholders and investigations and regulations by governing bodies.
A bylaw to Rule 41 of the Olympic Charter states that athletes who gain new citizenship or wish to change their Olympic status can do so if three years have passed since they competed for their previous country, and that athletes with dual citizenship can represent the country they choose.
Why do talented Kenyan athletes switch allegiance? For various reasons, many of which have to do with securing their financial futures and taking care of their families. Sometimes, it can also be an alternative route to break onto the lucrative global athletics circuit as opposed to competing for a spot on Kenya’s star-studded teams, which include many world-beating athletes.
For instance – past investigations have unearthed how Bahrain offered £70,000 a year (Ksh10.6 million) to talented teenage Kenyan athletes to represent them, and £400,000 (Ksh60.5 million) for World champions.
Other oil-rich countries including Qatar and the UAE also have offered handsome packages for athletes to represent them. One of the famous stories of Kenyan sports is that of a young Dennis ‘The Menace’ Oliech who was in 2003 one of the world’s highest-rated teenagers in football, after a series of eye-catching performances for his then Qatari club, Al Arabi, and country Kenya.
Oliech in 2004 turned down an offer of at least Ksh890 million from Qatar to change his citizenship as he led Kenya’s campaign at the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) showpiece in Tunisia.
Several Kenyan athletes have represented Bahrain including Ruth Jebet who switched nationalities as a 16-year old in 2013, and in the Rio 2016 Olympics won Bahrain’s first Gold medal, in the 3000m Women’s Steeplechase.
Four Kenyan-born athletes who represented the USA in the Rio 2016 Olympics were part of a U.S Army program which offered them world-class athletics training in exchange for m******y service for the United States (and all that comes with it). The United States pays its athletes a $37,500 Olympic Gold Medal bonus, compared to Kenya’s $10,000 (Gold), $7,500 for Silver and $5,000 for Bronze.
Many other countries, particularly those with fewer Olympic medals in their history, offer much higher rewards and bonuses for podium finishes compared to Kenya.
At the Tokyo Olympics, Kenya finished 19th on the global medal standings and 1st in Africa with 4 Gold, 4 Silver and 2 Bronze Medals. According to publicly available data from Olympic Committees and sports federations, Singapore has the highest rewards on offer for athletes – a million-dollar bonus for Gold, half a million for silver and a quarter million for Bronze.
Italy offers $213,629 for Gold, $106,815 for Silver and $71,120 for Bronze.
In many cases, Kenyans who choose to compete for other countries retain close connections to home thanks to family ties and still training in the same North Rift camps as their Kenyan counterparts.
Not everyone is a fan of the moves, but the allure of steady income, fat bonuses, world-class training facilities and opportunities to compete on the global stage remains irresistible to many young Kenyan athletes who often have to deal with difficult circumstances and minimal external support in the course of training.
“We have just had a shameful era for athletics and this is a part of it. These Kenyan athletes who run for Qatar or Bahrain don’t spend five minutes in their new countries. They go there for a couple of days to sign their papers and shake hands and that’s it,” James Templeton, manager of world 800M record-holder David Rudisha, told UK’s The Times in a 2017 interview, further stating that it had been going on for at least 14 years.
As a matter of fact, a common sentiment witnessed among Kenyans on social media whenever Kenyan teams hit the headlines for lack of support and poor preparations has been to encourage them to grab any opportunity they get to compete for other nations.
At the end of the day, the only way Kenya can retain its best talents is by strengthening its sports industry and building structures that allow athletes to thrive, compete and reap the rewards.