Turkey, a nation not historically known for its distance-running prowess, made a remarkable showing at December's European Cross Country Championships in Samorin, Slovakia. The Turkish men's team took home the gold, while its women's team placed third. Turkish athletes Kaan Kigen Ozbilen and Yasemin Can won their races to take home individual gold medals. How does one explain this sudden explosion of distance-running ability from a nation better known for producing world-class soccer players? Simply put, Turkey purchased the talents of the athletes, who were born in Kenya. Before they opted to become Turkish citizens and compete for their new country in return for payment, using a process called a transfer of allegiance, Ozbilen's name was Mike Kigen while Can was previously known as Vivian Jemutai. In a transfer of allegiance, a practice that until early last year was routinely allowed by the international governing body of athletics, the IAAF, an athlete could switch their commitment to a new nation after a one-year waiting period. If the athlete had represented their birth nation previously, the waiting period would be three years. The International Olympic Committee applies similar rules but, unlike the IAAF, those are still in place.
Turkey is not the first nation to exploit the deep pool of distance running talent from Kenya. In 2003, Kenyan steeplechase runner Stephen Cherono moved to Qatar, became a Qatari citizen and changed his name to Saif Saeed Shaheen. He subsequently won two gold medals at the World Championships for Qatar. Shaheen denied rumors that he had been offered $1 million to make the move, but admitted that Qatar would pay him $1,000 per month for life. At the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016, Bahrain captured its first Olympic gold after Kenyan-born distance runner Ruth Jebet switched her allegiance to the oil-rich Gulf nation.
An athlete switching eligibility between nations is neither a new, nor a very uncommon, phenomenon. In the mid-1980s, runner Zola Budd took advantage of her father's lineage to avoid the international sporting ban on South Africa, securing British citizenship to run for Great Britain in the 1984 Olympics. (She would later return to her native South Africa to compete in the 1992 Olympics under its banner.) The U.S. flag-bearer for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Lopez Lomong, was one of the famous "Lost Boys" displaced by the civil war in Sudan.
The Brawn Drain
The U.S. intercollegiate athletic system attracts high-level athletes from across the globe. Some of them remain in the United States after their college careers, become naturalized citizens and represent their new country in international competition. Several of my Kenyan teammates on the cross country and track squads at the University of Alabama gained citizenship after joining the U.S. Army, taking advantage of the military's World Class Athlete Program to further their athletic careers. In comparison, the Turkish distance runner Can is, as journalist Ben Bloom wrote in The Telegraph, "a Kenyan-born athlete who still lives in Kenya, trains in Kenya and appears to have little connection to Turkey whatsoever." The practice of country-hopping has become so prevalent among Kenyans that some there worry about a "brawn drain" as talented athletes pledge their allegiance to other nations.
This is an objectively difficult topic to wrangle with, because the system offers a number of positives. Jebet, for instance, uses the money she earns from Bahrain to put her siblings through school and to help house her family. Had she remained in Kenya, such a lucrative opportunity likely would not have arisen. The sheer number of world-class distance runners in Kenya — or sprinters in Jamaica — creates a steep competition to make a single Olympic or World Championship team. An offer to parley one's talent into a secure financial future is a rare opportunity. Yet the counterargument, that this system is unjust to those native-born athletes displaced by more talented imports, raises further questions about how nationality is defined in today's globalized world.
The ability of a country to, quite literally, pay for a medal raises the question of what value can be placed on these victories.
The Geopolitical Import
So, what does this system of athlete transfer mean for geopolitics? It depends on whether you subscribe to the notion that medals at international competitions matter. With the insistence on keeping track of medal counts as a means to identify which nation "wins" an Olympic Games (and the prestige that goes with it), it is difficult to argue that medals are not significant. This is not to say that Qatar, Bahrain or Turkey (among the most prolific purchasers of Kenyan talent) will become world powers by collecting world-class runners. In fact, the ability of a country to, quite literally, pay for a medal raises the question of what value can be placed on these victories.
While richer nations can claim credit for the medals, the money they paid for them can end up being reinvested into the athlete's country of origin. "These athletes are just Bahraini by name but for all practical purposes are Kenyans. They live and train with us and win big bucks out there to come and invest in Kenya," Paul Mutwii, an official for Athletics Kenya, the country's official sports governing body, told the Reuters news agency.
Yet this system has likely seen its final days. The practice of nations paying athletes to switch nationalities became so blatant and frequent that the International Association of Athletics Federations suspended transfers of allegiance until a revised system for regulating them was put in place. It is likely that under the new rules, the IAAF will outlaw payments for allegiance switching, but such a ban would not stop the practice. After all, performance-enhancing drugs are illegal, but athletes continue to seek advantage through doping. On the extreme side, the IAAF could institute a blanket ban on all transfers of allegiance, but this seems grossly unfair to those athletes who flee from political oppression or who gain dual citizenship through marriage. When the IAAF does institute a new policy, pay close attention to see how nations with a penchant for paying medal-winning athletes to switch their allegiances, like Turkey and Bahrain, respond.