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The 2022 World Athletics Championships ended in relative disappointment for Kenya, which continued its decline in the overall medal standings. Since the 2005 championships in Helsinki, when Kenya ranked ninth with only seven medals, the team has been exceptionally consistent. It has ranked 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 hosts the US, Ethiopia and Jamaica. Some countries might toast such an outcome. But not one that ranked first in 2015 with 16 medals and second with 11 medals in both 2017 and 2019.
Reaching this peak took a long time. At the 1987 championships Kenya managed only fifth with three medals. Subsequent championships saw Kenya improve to fourth in 1991, 1993 and 1997 before dramatically falling to 13th in 1999. Other years such as 2003 in Paris and 2005 marked some of the worst performances by Kenya. The fourth place finish in 2022 is a brutal reminder that it is easy to sink lower unless drastic corrective measures are taken.
What’s behind the decline? Firstly, poor local team selection due to a number of athletes committing to a punishing international running schedule. And an increase in doping-related suspensions of top Kenyan runners. Plus other countries have become more competitive in the Kenya-dominated long-distance races. Uganda is rising, as is a revamped Ethiopia. There’s also a significant increase in East African runners who have changed national allegiance from Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and from Kenya.
Some observers may focus on the growing migration of athletics talent from Kenya as the biggest problem. World Athletics’ liberal provisions for change of national allegiance for sporting reasons has brought about large-scale migration of talents from Kenya and other countries.
According to my research athletes leave their countries of birth to take advantage of better prospects for training facilities, competition, jobs and economic empowerment.
It’s my view that like many Kenyan professionals who work abroad and remit huge portions of their earnings back to Kenya in the form of investments, welfare support and gifts, runners should be embraced in a similar manner. They are professionals who are doing their best to elevate their economic well-being and that of their families.
The challenge rests with Kenya to invest in local athletes so that they can establish themselves economically without having to move abroad to do so.
Home and away
There’s a long history of sportsmen and women leaving home for a new country. A study on Olympic participation from 1948 to 2012 concluded that most teams have become more ethnically diverse. Olympic migration is a reflection of global migration patterns and not a novel phenomenon.
Firstly, the careers for athletes are short and they must seek opportunities to generate as much financial compensation as possible to take care of their future and those of their family members.
Secondly, some move on marital grounds to run for the homeland of their spouses. Running for the country of a spouse provides opportunities for permanent settlement to also raise a family.
The countries that have been key recipients of Kenyan runners include the US, Bahrain, Qatar, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Turkey and, as witnessed at the 2022 championships, Israel and Kazakhstan among others. Western countries such as the US, Netherlands and France are attractive, given their high standard of living and the opportunities for citizens to establish themselves.
Some countries, especially in the Middle East and Asia, have a dire shortage of running talent. They are attractive for athletes who want to access international competitions to promote themselves and be paid for representing their new nations.
Spoilt for choice
There’s another reason I believe Kenyans don’t need to see talent migration as the biggest challenge to its medal prospects: Kenya is not short of talent. It taps young athletes from its vibrant inter-school competitions every year. The first hurdle these new entrants face is international competition rules which restrict entries to three and sometimes four athletes from a country. Qualifying for international competitions is a nightmare for many new runners.
Moving to a country where competition among athletes is lower offers access to major races. For many Kenyan-born athletes, representing Middle East countries, or any other, comes with the advantage of continuing altitude training back home in Kenya. Some of these athletes are dual citizens and don’t necessarily renounce Kenya as their home nation.
An athlete such as Lonah Chemtai Salpeter was not even a recognisable runner in Kenya before moving abroad as a domestic worker. Running for fun and fitness catapulted her into stardom and Israel’s national limelight.
Kenya has a sufficient running pool for runners like Salpeter to represent other countries and still sustain its status as a global powerhouse in athletics.
Eyes on the prize
It is true that Kenya is increasingly facing stiff opposition from other countries. Some of these countries have benefited from athletes who have migrated from East Africa, including Kenya, Ethiopia, Somali and Southern Sudan.
The 2022 World Championships further strengthened my thesis that migrant runners from other East African countries pose a serious threat to Kenya’s future medal prospects. Somali-born athletes and those with ancestry in South Sudan, who won medals this year, have added to the competitiveness of middle and distance events.
Other emerging challengers such as Uganda – whose distance running athletes have consistently won medals in 10,000 metres and 5,000 metres at the last two world championships and the last Olympic Games – present even a more ominous challenge.
The answer to this emerging competition is twofold. Better investment in training and preparation of athletes for international competitions is needed. Secondly, Kenya needs to diversify its athletics pool to embrace field events and sprints apart from 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.
Wycliffe W. Njororai Simiyu, Professor, Health and Kinesiology, University of Texas at Tyler