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September 9, 2009

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Defections worry Kenyan officials

BAHRAIN basked in the glory of Kenyan-born Yusuf Saad Kamel's victory over 1,500 meters at the Berlin world championships last month but back in East Africa the subject of defecting athletes is worrying many people.

Allegations that young runners are being smuggled abroad, diplomatic rows and complaints from athletes about their treatment in their new homes have all fuelled the flames of controversy.

Kamel himself - born Gregory Konchellah 26 years ago - was at the center of one row, asking Kenya to take him back after accusing Bahraini officials of withholding his passport, failing to pay him bonuses and recruiting underage athletes.

The dispute was settled in time to allow Kamel to run for Bahrain in Berlin, where he added an 800 bronze to his 1,500 gold, but concerns continue about other athletes following in his footsteps.

"The smuggling of athletes, perpetrated by unscrupulous coaches operating illegal camps away from our radar, is going on," Athletics Kenya chairman Isaiah Kiplagat said recently, after reports that children were being lured from schools in remote parts of the Rift Valley Province to run for Gulf States.

"Do we consider these children as expatriates or refugees?" asked Kiplagat, Kenyan member of the International Association of Athletics Federations. "Some of them come to us complaining about poor conditions out there. Others are suffering silently."

Athletics Kenya raised concerns about the issue in February when Kiplagat accused a local coach of smuggling underage athletes to the Gulf states.

At the same time, six athletes, including Kamel, lodged a complaint with the Kenyan federation that they were being denied their passports by Bahraini officials when they wanted their former nationality back.

Bahrain passport

Kamel, who had even joined the Bahrain Armed Forces after moving to the state in 2003, wrote to Athletics Kenya, saying he wanted to give up his Bahrain passport.

"The reasons for revoking my residency/citizenship are: non-payment of bonuses earned in various races, the passport I hold indicates that I am a resident, not a citizen, and non-respect of human rights, treating African athletes differently from Bahraini athletes which I cannot withstand any more," wrote Kamel, the son of 1987 and 1991 world 800 champion Billy Konchellah, before changing his mind.

Kamel was followed to Bahrain by Abel Cheruiyot, who later died after an illness, and Leonard Mucheru, who became Mashir Salim Jawher.

Mucheru regained his Kenyan passport after running and winning a marathon race in Israel in 2007, which sparked a diplomatic furore and his deportation from Bahrain.

Early defections were influenced by better incentives, exposure to better training facilities across the world and Kenya's notoriously tough trials for global competitions.

In 2002 Stephen Cherono, renamed Saif Saaeed Shaheen, and Albert Chepkurui, who became Ahmad Hassan Abdullah, switched their allegiance to Qatar. Shaheen won world steeplechase titles in 2003 and 2005.

The IAAF last month released a list of nine Kenyans who had moved to Qatar and seven who had gone to Bahrain. A Ugandan, Burundian and two Tanzanians have also become Qataris.


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