Medals for Passports: How Bahrain is striking gold in Kenya
At around 5:33pm East African Time (+3GMT) on January 24, 2017, a rickety ageing 14-seater Public Service Vehicle commonly known in Kenya as ‘Nissan Matatu’ turns into the gates of Nandi Agricultural Showground in Kapsabet, the capital of Nandi County located some 40km southwest of Eldoret, the self-styled University of (Athletics) Champions.
At a punishing elevation of 6558 feet (1999m metres) above sea level, the town whose name comes from “Kap”- ‘belong to/area of’ and “sabit” or “sobet” – ‘live’ in the Kalenjin (Nandi sub-tribe) dialect has come to mean ‘a place of life’.
It is also one of the key catchment area for many a long distance champions in the expansive Rift Valley conveyor of running talent including Dr. Kipchoge Keino, the first Olympics Laureate who is hailed as the ‘Father of Kenyan Athletics’.
It only takes less than a minute for the Matatu to get clearance from Nandi County officers manning the stadium on that particular dusty day where the sun had scorched the usually cool town that is a picture of green for days that the vegetation in and around the showground had almost turned brown.
Once it came to a stop at the far end of an open field that can serve multiple sports, the passengers disembarked and it was a no brainer- they were athletes, nine in number, who had come for their evening easy run- a sight that is so common here as dust.
After receiving instructions from a minder, the nine started jogging around the perimeter of the open ground and the adjacent exhibition sheds that come to life when the annual agricultural trade fair (show) comes around.
They easily blended in with another group of about 15 runners who had earlier come to the venue for their work out, speaking in the native Kalenjin language as they jogged along at steady pace seeking to eliminate the effects of lactic acid following a more intense regime earlier in the morning.
As their paths crossed with the other group, they exchanged pleasantries in their mother tongue and there is nothing that could have told them apart except for the fact they wore attire emblazoned with ‘Bahrain’, the oil rich Gulf State that has embarked on a mission to dominate global distance running through naturalisation of talent in East Africa, with Kenya its key supplier of blessed legs.
Once the odd scenario set in for the Citizen TV/Digital crew that had laid a stake out at the showground for almost an hour, shooting their training surreptitiously so as not to raise any suspicion, it was clear a story that had taken seven months to pursue was reaching its climax.
CNN Sports Award winning journalists, Waihiga Mwaura of Citizen TV and Mutwiri Mutuota the Royal Media Services Radio/Digital Sports Editor looked on perplexed, as the gravity of what was unfolding before them hit home.
The Bahrain-clad runners were young and on evidence of what was on show, strong bet for champions of the future, particularly a girl barely 16 who was clad in a red jacket with her adopted nation screaming at its back catching the eye.
The pair sat incognito in the dusty wooden structure that acts as the stadium stands, with Waihiga who is a well recognised face on local television taking more caution by concealing his face by pulling a cap emblazoned with Rio 2016 so low that it almost touched his nose and it was clear what they were watching the transforming face of Kenyan athletics.
Here was part of the future of Kenyan athletics, a country famed worldwide for its distance running excellence bursting their lungs to train in pursuit of medals for Bahrain and riches for themselves and family.
On the ground, Nandi-based correspondent Daniel Korir and cameraman Mohammed Dida from Nairobi went on with their secret filming mission, the latter hiding in a taxi parked a few metres between the Matatu and the other who had local knowledge, patrolling the field with his oversized brown jacket (Cheget as locals call them) concealing his equipment.
After going around the well beaten running trail thrice for a 45 minute session, the Kenyan born Bahrainis did the customary stretching exercises, hunched into a group and said a Christian prayer judging by their standing posture and bowed heads.
With Bahrain a predominantly Muslim State, it dawned on the Citizen journalists the naturalised runners had not converted to the faith where prayers are said five times a day, facing the Holy City of Mecca.
For the record, they begin with raising ones hands up to the ears and saying in a moderate tone “Allah – Akbar (God is Great)” before placing the right hand over the left on the navel and keeping your eyes focused on the place you are standing and then bending down.
It was apparent that Kenya’s dominance in middle and long distance events is under threat as wealthy nations rush for natural, raw and untapped talent in the country akin to the Scramble for Africa of the late 1890s that saw British colonialists arrive in the nation for imperialist rule.
Having tasted two Olympics medals won by Kenya born athletes at the Rio 2016 Summer Games- gold in the women’s 3000m steeplechase wrought by record holder Ruth Jebet and silver in the women’s marathon bagged by Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa, Bahrain has embarked on a well rehearsed plan to dethrone Kenya as a force at global championships.
Athletics Kenya (AK) Nairobi chairman, Barnaba Korir, is the alleged local fixer that facilitated Bahrain to set camp in Kapsabet besides reportedly playing some undefined role in identifying and recruiting runners for the Gulf Nation.
“Barnaba is the team manager for all the athletes, he is like the team leader for Team Bahrain. He is lucky to be with us,” Bahraini head coach and Saudi born-Saad Shaddad a retired 3000m steeplechase star told Citizen TV.
However, there are no records at AK Riadha House headquarters that show Korir is registered as an Athletes’ Representative (agent) or he is attached to any stable managing Kenyan runners by the federation whose constitution outlaws sitting officials from transacting such business.
When contacted, Korir promised to respond to the claims on Monday.
In 2015, Kirwa denied Kenya silver by a single second in the Beijing Worlds when she dipped ahead of Helah Kiprop before ‘The Empire’ struck back in Brazil when her next door neighbour, Jemimah Jelagat Sumgong won Kenya’s first ever women marathon gold.
Over the next couple of days, Citizen TV and Digital camped in Kapsabet and established how Gulf nation has crafted an elaborate scheme on how to rule distance running in the coming years.
The runners they caught up with that day in the ‘place of life’ are in intensive training for the next month’s IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Kampala, Uganda we can reveal, having started their programme in earnest since January.
After the biennial World Cross, they will take a brief break, probably to present Bahrain King, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa who has reigned since 2002 with medals at either his lavish Al-Sakhir or Al-Qudaibiya palaces where they hope to receive tons of cash and other goodies like Jebet and Kirwa who are now multimillionaires.
They will then return to camp and train for the August London 2017 IAAF World Championships, the track and field showpiece that Kenya topped for the first time last year with seven gold medals and beyond that, the 2018 Asian Games and Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
After seeking out the Bahraini officials with a lot of guile through local brokers and informers besides staking out the plush hotel in Kapsabet they have set base, head coach Shaddad agreed to grant Waihiga an interview.
Surprisingly, he was forthright in outlining their master plan, allaying initial fears their operation in the country was covert or they would bolt at the mere presence of snooping local journalists.
Speaking in English laced with French, Shaddad confirmed to Citizen that no expense has been spared by the King in his quest to sell Bahrain as an athletics powerhouse not only in the middle and long distance but also in sprints.
King Khalifa according to the coach has opened the purse strings to ensure that the athletes are well taken care of and paid their training allowances to the last cent.
“He will look for big team, take everything, medals, world record the King wants it all. Ruth has opened up the doors. I hope in (Tokyo) 2020 the team will be big.
“Bahrain did well in Rio and many of our athletes got to the final. We got two medals from the steeplechase and marathon. We prepared for Rio in Kenya for about eight months. The training was good,” he candidly disclosed.
“Our Federation paid for everything to help the athletes. We made good conditions for everyone. The King was very happy. He awarded Ruth Jebet and Eunice Kirwa with rich awards and they were celebrated from the airport to the hotel.
“Everyone was very happy with the two medals,” Shaddad, the five -time Asian steeplechase champion and the main architect of their bid to use Kenyans and Ethiopians to outfox the East African arch-rivals in global competition emphasised.
Shaddad confirmed rumours that Bahrain is largely recruiting youth and junior athletes and not senior world beaters, so that they can be given enough time to be eligible to compete for their adopted nation under naturalisation rules set by world athletics governing body- the IAAF and the International Olympics Committee (IOC).
As a sweeter to entice the junior athletes to sign up with them agreements written largely in Arabic, a language they can barely understand, Shaddad told families are given hefty monthly stipends to allow their children to be recruited by Bahrain, way above what any average household in the agrarian area make for years.
Besides Kenya and Ethiopia, Bahrain is also active in South Africa, a nation that produces short distance runners of repute such as Olympic champion and world 400m record holder, Wayde van Nierkerk.
“Bahrain looks for juniors. We do not look for good, old athletes. We do not look for old guys like Saaed Shaheen. Taking from the national team is not a good idea. We take an athlete give them salary, good engagement etc and they perform well. We don’t have 16 or 17 year-olds in the (Kenyan) national team,” Shaddad explained.
Jebet, who is now an Olympics champion burned the tartan to stop the clock at 8:59.75 in Rio, that is the second fastest winning time in the history of the quadrennial event before smashing Russia’s Gulnara Gulkina-Saminova world record in Paris barely a week later (August 27), is a prime example of the efficiency of their system.
At the 2013 Asian Championships, the runner who blasted to the 8:52.78 world record, obliterating Saminova’s seemingly untouchable previous mark (8:58.18) by more than six seconds, won gold barely three months after running for Kenya at the East Africa School Games where she won as a 16 year-old.
Kenya was lucky Jebet who is a the keen student that is also aiming to secure a career through books opted to focus on her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (O-Levels) in 2015 otherwise, Hyvin Kiyeng whom she beat to silver would probably not have stood in the middle step of the podium in Beijing as the world champion.
In support of Shaddad’s revelations, the Bahrain King reportedly paid her USD 500,000, equivalent to Ksh52m for the gold medal besides her lucrative monthly earnings and in comparison, double 800 metres Olympics gold medallist and world record holder David Rudisha, running for Kenya earned about Ksh1m (about USD10,000) from the Government for his heroics in Rio.
Many Kenyans at the time took to social media to express umbrage with the eligibility of Jebet who announced herself to the global audience when she blew away her former compatriots to win the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships in Eugene, Oregon to run for Bahrain.
It echoed the outcry that greeted Shaheen (born Stephen Cherono), the men’s record holder when he famously beat two-time Olympics and four-time world steeplechase champion, Ezekiel Kemboi to the 2003 and 2005 IAAF World titles, robbing ‘Baba Yao’ (Their Father) the chance to add two more feathers to his decorated cap running for Qatar.
In fact, it took the direct intervention of National Olympics Committee-Kenya chairman Kipchoge to block Shaheen from competing for his adopted nation at the 2004 Olympics Games in Athens that Kemboi won but there is nothing they could do to bar Jebet from running in the colours of a nation she cannot recite its national anthem at Rio 2016.
The legality of Jebet’s switch as a junior remains controversial but Bahrain insist what they are offering Kenyan minors are athletics scholarships and not jobs following the precedent set by USA and Japan who over the years, have seen the country’s runners cross over to sturdy and ultimately compete for them.
However, the stark difference is whilst a runner has to apply to be a citizen of USA and follow the laid down stringent procedures involved or contracted to run for corporate teams as opposed to being naturalised in Japan, one must switch allegiance to Bahrain to benefit from their sponsorship.
“Before Ruth had a big problem with her technique and other aspects and nobody knew her. One year I trained with her, we made many changes. I’m first champion in the Gulf of the 3000m steeple-chase and I know the race is very difficult,” Shaddad the three-time Arab Athletics Champion detailed how they turned raw talent into a distance running phenomenon before she clocked 20.
With Bahrain and fellow Gulf States ready to cough up astronomical figures to tap the cream of promising Kenyan athletes, it is not rocket science that soon, they will be miles ahead of their nation of birth that until recently has excelled by boasting an embarrassing abundance of talent matched by little or no investment at all.
For instance, an informer told Citizen that the Bahrainis brought State of the Art equipment to the Kapsabet hotel they are based never before seen on this land that can compile minute detail of each individual runner to give coaches crucial data on performance, conditioning, medical monitoring and much more.
That is a luxury top local coaches can only dream off with the whistle and stopwatch at hand providing the only way to train the athletes using a pre-set programme.
The Citizen crew established that a team of 15 Kenyan born athletes have been camping in Kapsabet for the last three months preparing for the Kampala World Cross.
In disparity, Kenyan officials will once again rely on the local meetings and IAAF Permit meetings abroad to shape their athletes before selecting the first six across the line to run for their nation in Kampala on March 27.
“I am here preparing for cross country in Uganda. We hope we go to take medals against the Kenyan and Ethiopian teams. We are fighting with Kenya and Ethiopia,” Shaddad boldly declared.
Immediately after the World Cross, the camp will be reconstituted and another team will begin to prepare for London with an intensive five-month training programme and as for Kenya, save for the marathoners who will be named in April, the rest will duke it out for places at the Trials in July.
Citizen TV and Digital managed to track one of the athletes who is in the process of being naturalised by Bahrain and owing to the sensitive nature of the information he provided, his name has been changed to Kipsang.
“They saw me competing at (the annual) Ndalat Gaa Cross Country. They liked me and promised that I would join their team and become a Bahraini citizen.
“I have already signed a contract with the recruiters and I hope to travel to Bahrain later this year where I will officially adopt their nationality and retain my Kenyan identity since the new Constitution allows dual citizenship,” Kipsang who was speaking so softly perhaps out of fear talking to the press will jeopardise his money-minting dream uttered.
Strangely, he is not aware of the contents contained in the contract he gleefully penned his name on.
“It was in something like French. I did not understand it. I just signed,” he offered.
On patient probing, Kipsang revealed the incentives Bahrain was giving the athletes and the parents to attract them to sign up.
“They pay about Ksh 800,000 (around USD8,000) per month and give the parents around Ksh200,000 (USD2,000) a month,” he confessed.
Another insider who has several friends in the camp gave more intelligence on the Bahraini mission in the country.
Amon (not his real name) said more Kenyan athletes are willing to defect to Bahrain unless the Government and other stakeholders in the sport review their compensation package.
“Money is the issue. If you do not take care of athletes then they will move to the other side. They are paying well. If you come to Kapsabet, you will see the ones who are running for other countries are doing so well.
“Why is Kenya not doing so for our athletes? Some have even gone to join the Bahrain team in training hoping they will be selected to join,” Amon stressed.
Amon referred to Kenya’s mistreatment of her athletes at the 2016 Rio Olympics by officials from the Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts as well as the National Olympics Committee of Kenya as another reason fuelling the desire to switch nationality.
As Kenyan athletes continue to chase their unpaid monies from the Government, Jebet praised her King and the red carpet treatment she was accorded when she won her adopted nation her first Olympics gold medal.
“In Kenya the athletes had many issues. In Bahrain they respect their athletes and take good care of them. They provided everything we needed. We stayed at one place and we did not have disturbances we even had pocket money.
“The money a Kenyan athlete receives is very little. You cannot build anything with Ksh1.5m. With Ksh5m you can do something solid with that money,” Jebet said.
Retired Atlanta 1996 Olympics silver medallist and three-time world men 3000m steeplechase champion, Moses Kiptanui echoed her sentiments.
“The reason why many athletes represent other countries is simply because of monetary values. The number is going to increase. Young people are going to go to different countries to better their running skills and their financial income,” the outspoken Kiptanui asserted.
Former world marathon record holder, Wilson Kipsang who is also the chairman of the Professional Athletes Association of Kenya, lauded the Bahrainis for offering a model example of how to treat the wealth of running talent in the country.
“At the Rio Olympics, Ruth performed very well. What Bahrain did was to support her talent and invest in her to win that medal.
“You cannot compare that to what Kenya is doing, it’s doing nothing at all! You cannot bring your team to train for two weeks only. Ruth was given everything food, hotel, allowances, a physiotherapist, a doctor and six guys to train with for about six months,” the London 2012 Olympics bronze medallist said at his Iten home.
“If given that kind of support, my friend, tell me why should you not perform? But here in Kenya you find things are done in a very different way, you saw the big mess that was at the Rio Olympics.
“I tell you here in Kenya the performance of the team is only through individual efforts. If you do not have money to support your training you are done,” the two-time London and former New York marathon champion elaborated.
“I honestly do not blame those athletes. If you are being mistreated the way we mistreat our athletes then what do you expect? If I was in their shoes I would do the same thing,” Kipsang who is preparing to run at the Tokyo Marathon later February reflected.
Whilst changing nationalities was viewed as a shameful act and lack of patriotism in days gone by, Bahrain and other countries like Turkey and Qatar have offered lucrative alternatives to a growing number of budding athletes who are growing increasingly disillusioned with the way the sport is being run in Kenya.
-Waihiga Mwaura, Daniel Korir, Mohammed Dida and Mutwiri Mutuota also contributed to this report.