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Tea could be Kenya’s leading export, accounting for Sh105 billion in 2010 revenue, but athletics continues to generate a lot of activity on the export market.
Tea could be Kenya’s leading export, accounting for Sh105 billion in 2010 revenue, but athletics continues to generate a lot of activity on the export market.

Since former 800 metres world champion and record holder, Wilson Kipketer, ran for Denmark at the 1995 World Championships, the first high profile Kenyan to change nationality, over 50 top distance runners have shifted allegiance, the majority flying to the Gulf states of Bahrain and Qatar.
Most successful defectors

Besides Kipketer, the most successful defectors have been USA’s Kapsabet-born Bernard Lagat, a 1,500m and 5,000m double world champion at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan, and Saif Saaeed Shaheen, the Keiyo-born steeplechase world record holder formerly known as Stephen Cherono.

The latest destination

But with the initial high price paid by the Gulf states to attract Kenyan athletes slowly falling, Turkey seems to be the latest destination for Kenya’s elite runners who continue to find it difficult to wriggle themselves into the famous Kenyan jersey for international competition.

Exactly two months ago, three Kenyans broke new ground by quietly gaining Turkish citizenship that will only allow them to run in the red and white from June 8, 2013.

Turkey’s biggest track import

Paul Kipkosgei Kemboi, Abraham Kiprotich and William Biwott Tanui earned Turkish citizenship on June 8, but under the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) rules, the trio will only be eligible to compete for their new nation at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.

And while Kiprotich retains his name, Kemboi is now known as Polat Kemboi, while Tanui’s Turkish identity is Ilham Tanui Özbilen.

Turkey’s biggest track import thus far has been Ethiopia-born Elvan Abeylegesse, formerly Hewan Abeye.

Abeylegesse is the reigning European women’s 10,000m champion and won two silver medals at the Beijing Olympics in the 10,000m and 5,000m, on both occasions finishing second to her former compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba.

But the defection of the Kenyan trio to Ankara will most certainly raise some storm in Nairobi, and already has.

Yesterday, Athletics Kenya refused to recognise the move saying they had not been consulted by the IAAF and Turkish track and field authorities.

AK chairman, Isaiah Kiplagat, said as per the IAAF rules, the association losing an athlete must first be consulted and approval sought, which was not the case with Kemboi, Tanui and Kiprotich.

“There was no correspondence and no communication between the IAAF, the Turkish association and Athletics Kenya,” Kiplagat, who is also a council member of the IAAF, said on Monday.

“We certainly will not allow this free-for-all.”

At the weekend, Tanui Özbilen made an immediate impact for his new nation when he set a new Turkish national record in the 800 metres, clocking one minute, 44.25 seconds at the Flanders Cup meeting in Ninove, Belgium, on Saturday.

The 21-year-old, Keiyo-born athlete smashed his personal best by more than two seconds.

“I was very focused to make it a very fast race today, because I knew that the pace would be ideally set. I wanted to show something and I wanted to prove that I can be competitive at the highest level in the 800m as well,” he told the IAAF website.

Tanui Özbilen was in the Kenyan team that broke the world record in the rarely-run 4x1,500m relay race in Belgium in 2009.