Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Kenya/Qatar: how do you make a Kenyan into a Qatari?

I just watched the 3000 meter steeplechase race on TV ... the World Championships in Paris. What a race!!!! The Kenyan and the Qatari battled it out to the very finish. Besides great running, this race also had a great backstory ...

Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar won the 3000 meeter steeplechase. Until a month ago, Shaheen was Stephen Cherono of Kenya. Qatar is reported to have offered Shaheen a lifetime salary of $1,000 per month to get him to change his citizenship.

Shaheen's older brother, Abraham Cherono, was running for Kenya in the same race and placed fifth. He is apparently unhappy that his brother changed his citizenship. At the end of the race, neither Cherono nor Ezekiel Kemboi, who placed second, went over to congratulate Shaheen. It was quite sad to see Shaheen wrapped in his Qatari flag, doing his victory lap, with no Kenyan, no brother, in sight to offer him kudos.

According to this article, Shaheen was asked about the name change and he replied jokingly: "My name? I didn't choose it. They just gave it to me. Do you like it?"

I don't blame the guy for trying to make a living but it's sad that African athletes (and doctors and engineers and teachers) feel they have to go elsewhere to make a decent living. Though if you win one or more of those million dollar purses, you would be set for life as an African athlete or anything else!

But there is a serious side to all this. According to IOC rules, unless the mother country gives permission, an athlete has to sit out three seasons before racing for his/her new country. According to this article in the Guardian, the Qataris may have offered to help Kenya build an all-weather track to get Kenya give permission for the transfer. Both Qatar and Kenya deny any such deal exists.

But money is money. And $1,000 a month for life is a good deal. Sheehan is very young at 20. How many young, poor, African athletes can resist when somebody comes courting with that kind of offer?

IOC president Jacques Rogge has characterized the practice of luring athletes with money as immoral. I don't entirely disagree with him. There is something creepy about "buying" people. In fact, I'm creeped out by the language in sports which has players "traded", "bought" and "sold".

Sheehan's gold in the steeplechase was Qatar's first gold in world-class athletic competition.