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Why professional athletes with East African origin are being sought to represent other nations

October 22, 2018
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Photo courtesy of the Nairobi Marathon

If a journalist, a doctor, a farmer, a lawyer or any other professional is free to seek for greener pastures out of their countries, I do not see any good reason why runners should not have the same freedoms to move to a country where they believe their services will be more valuable and appreciated and settle there. Running is a profession just like any other.

This month, Kenyans continued to show their supremacy in long distance running by winning a number of races around the world, including the Chicago marathon, the Amsterdam and the Toronto Waterfront Marathon where Brigid Kosgei, Lawrence Cherono and Benson Kipruto, among others, won, defended both the men and women titles, or set new course records. This shows the surplus of talent available in Kenya alone, without extended it to the rest of the East African nations of Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia

There were some fans with some concerns last year when two Turkish athletes, Kaan Kigen Ozbilen and Can Yasemin, won the men and women European cross country titles and their origins were traced back to Kenya. Some fans seem to be uncomfortable with the fact that athletes with an East African origin who have changed their citizenships and now represent other nations are winning races for their new nations.

However, it is hard to pin-point the exact reason for the discomfort. Is it the fear that the East Africans are unbeatable? Is it the issue of unleveled playing field? Or, is it an issue with feelings?
Some runners have begun steering away from the notion that athletes with Kenyan origin have to be avoided in races for them to win and the results can be seen: USA’s Shalane Flanagan just beat the women’s marathon record holder, Mary Keitany to win the New York City Marathon; Galen Rupp beat the two times world champion, Abel Kirui to win the Chicago marathon while Sondre Moen of Norway beat Uganda’s world champion, Stephen Kiprotich to win the Fukuoka marathon.
In Kenya we import foreign professionals/experts to work in the medical, marketing, construction and in many other fields and many ends up becoming Kenyan citizens. Why can’t we allow other countries to export athletes from us too?
After all, we have thousands of Kenyans moving out of the country to work in other jobs too, ending up changing their citizenships in the process. At the moment, many Kenyans have changed their citizenships and settled in Australia, others have joined the US military. So, where is the problem with changing citizenships for sports’ purposes?

The reason I hear being given is that athletes should not be changing their citizenship purposely for sports, but they can change for other reasons like jobs opportunities, etc. If sports are as important in life as any other sector, like business, tourism, journalism, then it is time to agree that if a big corporation can identify a great talent to work with them and feel free to employ anyone regardless of their origin, then it should not be so different when a nation wants to develop their sports sector by getting more professional athletes in their countries to promote health and fitness, or even to market their country in world competitions. 
Already, due to IAAF label road races requiring elite athletes from over 5 countries, it is getting harder for Kenyan athletes to get invited to run in these races if they have never run under 2:05.00 for a marathon because there will be another Kenyan who already has that time. Currently, a US or Canadian runner with a personal best time of 2:12:00 is probably more marketable and more likely to be invited to a big marathon that a Kenyan who has run under 2:05:00. So, it is understandable why they may be more useful in other countries.
Some brands that market sporting products at times would like athletes to be based in countries where they think they will find a larger market for their products. Professional athletes should be allowed the privilege to be employed, as runners, in places where their value is more.

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