Kenyans run for other countries, but that’s not why the medals are fewer

The 2022 World Championships in Athletics ended in relative disappointment for Kenya, which continued to drop in the overall medal standings. Since the 2005 championships in Helsinki, when Kenya finished ninth with just seven medals, the team has been exceptionally consistent. He placed in the top three in all subsequent competitions.

This year, Kenya won 10 medals (two gold, five silver and three bronze), placing it fourth behind the United States, Ethiopia and Jamaica. Some countries might raise a toast to such an outcome. But not the one who ranked first in 2015 with 16 medals and second with 11 medals in 2017 and 2019.

Reaching this peak took a long time. At the 1987 championships, Kenya only secured fifth place with three medals. Subsequent championships saw Kenya improve to fourth place in 1991, 1993 and 1997 before dropping dramatically to 13th place in 1999. Other years like 2003 in Paris and 2005 marked some of the worst performances in the Kenya. Fourth place in 2022 is a stark reminder that it’s easy to sink lower unless drastic corrective action is taken.

What’s behind the decline? First, poor home team selection due to a number of athletes committing to a grueling international racing schedule. And an increase in doping-related suspensions of top Kenyan runners. Additionally, other countries have become more competitive in long distance races dominated by Kenya. Uganda is booming, as is revamped Ethiopia. There is also a significant increase in the number of East African runners who have changed their national allegiance from Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Kenya.

Some observers may focus on the growing migration Kenya’s athletic talent as the biggest problem. World Athletics’ liberal provisions for changing national allegiance for sporting reasons has resulted in large-scale migration of talent from Kenya and other countries.

According to my research, athletes leave their country of birth to enjoy better prospects for training facilities, competition, jobs and economic empowerment.

I am of the opinion that like many Kenyan professionals who work overseas and send a large part of their income back to Kenya in the form of investments, welfare and gifts, runners should be welcomed in the same way. They are professionals who do their best to improve their economic well-being and that of their families.

The challenge lies with Kenya to invest in local athletes so that they can establish themselves economically without having to travel overseas to do so.

At home and away

There is a long history of athletes leaving their homes for a new country. A study of Olympic participation from 1948 to 2012 concluded that most teams became more ethnically diverse. Olympic migration is a reflection of global migration patterns and not a new phenomenon.

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First, athletes’ careers are short and they must look for opportunities to generate as much financial compensation as possible to take care of their future and that of their family members.

Second, some move for matrimonial reasons to seek the homeland of their spouse. Running for a spouse’s country provides opportunities for permanent settlement to raise a family.

Countries that have been the main beneficiaries of Kenyan runners include the United States, Bahrain, Qatar, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Turkey and, as evidenced by the 2022 championships, Israel and Kazakhstan, among others. Western countries such as the United States, the Netherlands and France are attractive, given their high standard of living and opportunities for citizens to settle.

Some countries, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, are sorely lacking in running talent. They are attractive to athletes who wish to access international competitions to promote themselves and be paid to represent their new nations.

Spoiled for choice

There is another reason why I think Kenyans need not see talent migration as the biggest challenge to their medal prospects: Kenya is not lacking in talent. Each year, it calls upon young athletes during its dynamic inter-school competitions. The first obstacle that these newcomers face is the rules of international competitions which limit entries to three and sometimes four athletes from a country. Qualifying for international competitions is a nightmare for many new racers.

Moving to a country where competition between athletes is lower offers access to major races. For many athletes born in Kenya, representing countries in the Middle East, or any other, there is the advantage of continuing to train at altitude at home in Kenya. Some of these athletes have dual nationality and do not necessarily renounce Kenya as their country of origin.

An athlete like Lonah Chemtai Salpeter was not even a recognizable runner in Kenya before going abroad as a domestic worker. Running for fun and fitness catapulted her into stardom and into Israel’s national spotlight.

Kenya has enough running pool for runners like Salpeter to represent other countries while maintaining its status as a world power in athletics.

Eyes on the Prize

It is true that Kenya is increasingly facing strong opposition from other countries. Some of these countries have benefited from athletes who migrated from East Africa, including Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan.

The 2022 World Championships have further reinforced my thesis that migrant runners from other East African countries pose a serious threat to Kenya’s future medal prospects. Athletes born in Somalia and those with ancestry in South Sudan, who won medals this year, added to the competitiveness of the middle distance and long distance events.

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Other emerging challengers such as Uganda – whose distance runners have regularly won medals in the 10,000 meters and 5,000 meters at the last two world championships and the last Olympics – present an even more ominous challenge.

The response to this emerging competition is twofold. Better investment in the training and preparation of athletes for international competitions is needed. Second, Kenya needs to diversify its athletics pool to encompass field events and sprints outside of distance running, which is becoming increasingly competitive. Kenyan athletes, Ferdinand Omanyala and Julius Yego, have shown that yes, it is possible to win in sprints and in field events.

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