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Distance running in Kenya: Athletics labour migration and its consequences

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Kenya has established herself as a source of international distance running talent. However, due to the economic inequality and other factors, global migration of athletes is on the increase. One notable example is that of athletes born in Kenya, who have moved abroad to represent other countries. Initially, the trend was to move to the USA, Europe or Japan, but of late the Middle East countries of Qatar and Bahrain have become popular destinations. The purpose of this article is to delve into the Kenyan distance running phenomenon, the migration of athletes and the consequences on some selected athletes using sport labour migration and the typologies of migrant athletes developed by Maguire (199935. Maguire , J. 1999. Global sport: Individuals, societies, civilizations, Cambridge: Polity Press. View all references, Global sport: Individuals, societies, civilizations. Cambridge: Polity Press) and Magee and Sugden (200234. Magee , J. and Sugden , J. 2002. The world at their feet: Professional football and international labor migration. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 26(4): 421–437. [CrossRef], [CSA]View all references, The world at their feet: Professional football and international labor migration. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 26(4), 421–437) as the conceptual framework. This movement of athletic talent also poses major social and political challenges to the migrant athletes. Some of the athletes who moved to the Middle East from Kenya have had negative experiences forcing them to re-claim their Kenyan citizenship. This issue of athlete labour migration and related consequences, therefore, deserves some scholarly attention.
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Distance running in Kenya: athletics
labour migration and its consequences
Wycliffe W. Simiyu Njororai a
a Department of Health and Kinesiology, The University of Texas at
Tyler, 3900 University Blvd., #2200-B, Tyler, TX, 75799, USA
Version of record first published: 05 Oct 2012.
To cite this article: Wycliffe W. Simiyu Njororai (): Distance running in Kenya: athletics labour
migration and its consequences, Leisure/Loisir, DOI:10.1080/14927713.2012.729787
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Leisure/Loisir
iFirs t, 2012, 1–23
Distance running in Kenya: athletics labour migration
and its consequences
Wycliffe W. Simiyu Njororai*
Department of Health and Kinesiology, The University of Texas at Tyler, 3900 University Blvd.,
#2200-B, Tyler, TX 75799, USA
(Received August 2011; final version received June 2012)
Kenya has established herself as a source of international distance running talent.
However, due to the economic inequality and other factors, global migration of ath-
letes is on the increase. One notable example is that of athletes born in Kenya, who
have moved abroad to represent other countries. Initially, the trend was to move to the
USA, Europe or Japan, but of late the Middle East countries of Qatar and Bahrain
have become popular destinations. The purpose of this article is to delve into the
Kenyan distance running phenomenon, the migration of athletes and the consequences
on some selected athletes using sport labour migration and the typologies of migrant
athletes developed by Maguire (1999, Global sport: Individuals, societies, civiliza-
tions. Cambridge: Polity Press) and Magee and Sugden (2002, The world at their feet:
Professional football and international labor migration. Journal of Sport and Social
Issues, 26(4), 421–437) as the conceptual framework. This movement of athletic talent
also poses major social and political challenges to the migrant athletes. Some of the
athletes who moved to the Middle East from Kenya have had negative experiences forc-
ing them to re-claim their Kenyan citizenship. This issue of athlete labour migration
and related consequences, therefore, deserves some scholarly attention.
Keywords: distance running; athletics labour migration; globalization; inequality;
commercialization; international association of athletics federations
Le Kenya s’est imposé comme une puissance internationale dans la course de fond.
Toutefois, en raison de l’inégalité économique et d’autres facteurs, la migration mon-
diale des athlètes est en augmentation. Un exemple notable est celui des athlètes nés au
Kenya qui ont déménagé à l’étranger afin de représenter d’autres pays. Initialement, la
tendance était de se déplacer vers les États-Unis, l’Europe et au Japon, mais depuis
quelque temps le déplacement vers les pays du Moyen-Orient comme le Qatar et
Bahreïn sont devenu des destinations populaires. Le but de cet article est d’étudier le
phénomène de la course de fond au Kenya, la migration des athlètes et les conséquences
sur certains athlètes sélectionnés en utilisant la migration des athlètes sportive dévelop-
pée par Maguire (1999, Global sport: Individuals, societies, civilizations. Cambridge:
Polity Press) et Magee et Sugden (2002, The world at their feet: Professional football
and international labor migration. Journal of Sport and Social Issues,26(4), 421–437).
Ce déplacement du talent athlétique Kenyan pose également des défis sociaux majeurs
et politiques. Parmi les athlètes qui se sont déplacés au Moyen-Orient certains ont eu des
expériences négatives les forçant donc à réclamer leur nationalité kenyane. Les relations
entre la migration athlétique et les conséquences méritent l’attention des chercheurs.
*Email: njororai@yahoo.com
ISSN 1492-7713 print/ISSN 2151-2221 online
© 2012 Canadian Association for Leisure Studies / Association canadienne d’études en loisir
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14927713.2012.729787
http://www.tandfonline.com
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2W.W.S. Njororai
Mots-clés: course de fond; athlétisme migration de travail; la mondialisation; les iné-
galités; la commercialisation; l’association internationale des fédérations d’athlétisme
Introduction
The history of sports in Kenya stretches way back to the period before the British rule.
The people of Kenya were actively involved in traditional sports such as dance, wrestling,
hunting, traditional archery and other sports that were mainly confined within the various
indigenous communities (Mazrui, 1986; Njororai, 2010). With the colonization of Kenya
by the British, there was development of sports such as golf, tennis, cricket, horse racing
and polo that were exclusive for the European settlers and soccer, boxing and athletics (i.e.
track and field) for the indigenous people (Mählmann, 1988; Manners, 1997a; Mazrui,
1986; Njororai, 2010; Stuart, 1993; Tulloh, 1982). The introduction of modern or western
sports was due to the migration of people from Europe to Africa. The indigenous people
were quick to adopt the western sports as they were endowed with athleticism and passion
for a physical movement culture (Mählmann, 1988, 1992; Njororai, 2009b, 2010). One of
the sports that was picked up very quickly by local people was track and field. Kenya made
her entry into international track and field competitions as far back as 1951, but more sig-
nificantly in 1954 at the Vancouver Commonwealth Games and the 1956 Olympic Games
in Melbourne, Australia (Amin & Moll, 1972; Njororai, 2004, 2010; Tulloh, 1982). The
foundation for track and field was the country-wide structure that revolved around schools
and armed forces. Mission schools such as St. Patrick’s, Iten, Cardinal Otunga, Mosocho,
Kiganjo Police Training College, Eregi Teachers College, among others were centres of
athletic training headed by volunteer coaches who were often settlers from Great Britain
(Amin & Moll, 1972; Bhushan, 1987; Stuart, 1993). The country-wide structure of using
Community Development Assistants to promote recreation activities at the locational level
led to regional competitions which produced talented runners who often ended up in the
armed forces. Eventually, schools and colleges – especially US-based universities – were
focal points during the 1970s and1980s before the armed forces and foreign-run clubs took
over the Kenyan track and field scene (Amin & Moll, 1972; Bhushan, 1987; Stuart, 1993).
This article, therefore, looks at the phenomenon of Kenya’s dominance in the distance
running races, the issue of her athletes migrating to represent other countries particularly
in the Middle East, and the consequences for donor and recipient countries and for selected
athletes involved. To accomplish these aims, data derived from the results pertaining
to the marathon winners for major cities including Chicago, Buffalo, New York, Berlin
and London, as well as the International Association of Athletics Federations’ (IAAF,
2012) 50 best-ranked half marathon runners are examined to demonstrate Kenya’s athletic
success and to provide an explanation for their dominance. As a result of this dominance,
surplus athletes are forced to venture abroad as they look for alternative pathways to
international athletic success. Additionally, discourses of sports labour migration are
reviewed to situate the Kenyan athlete labour migration phenomenon. Finally, conse-
quences of migration to athletes as well as Athletics in Kenya and the recipient countries
are discussed. The discussion centres on media reports concerning Leonard Mucheru and
Gregory Konchellah, who had moved to Bahrain, and were both having problems with
their new country, which lead to renunciation of citizenship for the former and claims of
mistreatment for the latter. Mucheru was forced to return to Kenya to reclaim citizenship
after running into a politically sensitive storm, while Konchellah claimed that his bonuses
were not being paid leading to the withholding of his passport and making it difficult
for him to train and travel to compete internationally (Daily Nation, 2009; Musumba,
2009b).
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Foundations for Kenya’s dominance in distance running
The first major international competitions in which indigenous Kenyans participated and
made an impact were in the 1954 Vancouver Commonwealth Games and their first Olympic
Games in Melbourne, Australia, in 1956 (Bhushan, 1987; Njororai, 2003, 2004, 2010;
Tulloh, 1982). The partial success in these games paved the way for the subsequent domi-
nance of Kenyan distance runners in world athletics (Njororai, 2004, 2010; Tulloh, 1982).
Although Kenyan runners did not win any medals in these competitions, they came close
in the distances races. However, winning of Olympic medals started in 1964 when Wilson
Kiprugut Chumo won a bronze medal in 800 m (Amin & Moll, 1972; Bhushan, 1987;
Manners, 1997a, 1997b; Stuart, 1993). The bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games
injected passion and enthusiasm among the Kenyan runners leading to overwhelming suc-
cess at the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games where Kenyan runners won medals in races
ranging from 400 to 10,000 m (Bhushan, 1987; Njororai, 2004; Tulloh, 1982). It also was
at the 1968 Olympic Games that Kenyans started winning the 3000 m steeplechase for
men. They have won gold medals in the 3000 m steeplechase in every Olympic Games
entered since 1968 (Manners, 1997a, 1997b; Njororai, 2004, 2010; Pitsiladis, Onywera,
Geogiades, O’Connell, & Boit, 2004). The success in the 1960s revolved around runners
who were all home-based and came out of schools and armed forces.
This success in the 1960s exposed the Kenyan runners to a global audience, which
led to massive transfer of talented runners to US universities. Thus, the story of Kenya’s
athlete migration started after the successful 1968 Olympic Games. The period between
1972 and 1988 saw a significant number of athletes moving to study and run in the United
States (Bale & Sang, 1996; Tulloh, 1982). According to Bale and Sang (1996), global
sports processes can lead to the under-development or dependent development of a nation’s
talent. They illustrate this under-development and dependent development processes using
Kenyan athletes who were massively recruited by US-based universities starting from the
mid-1970s to spur success in the track and field programmes so as to market the host
institutions. This development was a positive one as it diversified and exposed the Kenyan
athletes to western training methods, facilities, international competitions and personnel
accounting for her international successes in the 1970s and 1980s.
This period was also a pivotal time because the International Olympic Committee
(IOC) as well as the IAAF significantly changed their missions from that of amateurism
to professionalism. The transformation of the IOC and IAAF opened athletics spaces for
individual athletes to fully devote to running and earning a living as a career. Kenyan run-
ners were not left behind as they no longer needed to go to US universities in order to
elevate and improve their talent. Locally, there was a major emphasis by the government
institutions and semi-corporate organizations to hire athletes in order to represent them in
competitions as a major arm of their public relations. One key department that invested
heavily in this endeavour was the Kenyan armed forces. The period starting from 1978 saw
a revitalization of the armed forces and the emphasis on sport competitions to engage the
soldiers. Athletes who were talented but working in the armed forces were given time to
train and compete both locally and internationally.
At the level of governance, Athletics Kenya (previously Kenya Amateur Athletics
Association) also picked up cross-country running and Kenya started competing at interna-
tional level in World Cross Country Championships. Kenya’s involvement in cross-country
elevated athletics to a mass sport as the country started dominating the World Cross
Country Championships. This domination led to high visibility of Kenyan runners starting
from the junior and youth levels. The introduction of more competitions at the global level
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focusing on juniors and youth also helped tap talents from Kenya’s school system. The late
1980s and early 1990s also saw the entry of athletics agents into Kenyan Athletics. This
led to athletes migrating, albeit temporarily, to live and train in Great Britain, the USA,
Germany and Japan so as to compete effectively in international competitions, especially
the competitive and lucrative Grand Prix athletics competition circuit in Europe. Athletes
who did not make it for major athletics competitions, but were good at distance running,
focused on road races in Europe and the USA.
Marathon running, however, was slow to catch up in Kenya, despite its recent dom-
ination of half and full marathon races around the world. Indeed, not a single elite
Kenyan had ever entered the Boston Marathon until prize money was introduced in 1986,
and Kenyan participation in other major marathons was relatively rare before that time
(Manners, 1997a, 1997b). At the Olympic Games and World Championships, the marathon
was strictly an afterthought as the Kenya Amateur Athletics Association (later renamed
Athletics Kenya) never took the event seriously enough to have athletes prepared for it.
For example, at the 1968 Olympic Games where Kenya won eight medals on the track, the
two men entered in the marathon were both novices; in fact, only one of them had ever
attempted the full distance in training (Manners, 1997b). The period between 1960 and
1986 saw Kenya’s neighbours from Ethiopia, Tanzania and Djibouti run and win marathon
races as well as prize money, but Kenyans were cautious about the marathon because dis-
tance runners thought the marathon was too difficult a race for them (Manners, 1997b).
However, the first Kenyan victory in a world-class marathon came in 1983, when US-based
Joseph Nzau won in Chicago. This was followed by victories by Ibrahim Hussein in 1985,
fresh from the University of New Mexico. He had a remarkable string of victories: three
straight in Honolulu plus New York in 1987 and Boston in 1988, 1991 and 1992 making
him the most successful marathon runner from Kenya. In addition, his Japanese-trained
counterpart, Douglas Wakiihuri, won the marathon at the 1987 Track and Field World
Championships and followed up with a silver medal at the 1988 Olympic Games, a win in
the London Marathon in 1989 and another in the New York City Marathon in 1990.
These triumphs were noticed by other distance runners given that neither of these
marathon winners had excelled previously on the track nor in cross-country. A lot of run-
ners were now convinced that Kenyans could run marathons – that the distance was not
beyond their range – and the cars and cash the winners brought home showed that the extra
mileage could be worth the effort (Manners, 1997b). This realization sparked some excite-
ment and hope, and it was just a matter of time before the marathon rose in popularity,
especially because the country already had a rich reservoir of distance runners via cross-
country running. Unfortunately, few in Kenya really knew how to direct that effort as both
the aforementioned outstanding marathon runners were abroad: Wakiihuri did his training
in Japan and Hussein spent most of his time in Albuquerque, USA. Nevertheless, through
the successes registered at the Boston City Marathon, Kenya designated it as its official
Olympic trials marathon. Thus, starting in 1992, in exchange for a promise from the Kenya
Amateur Athletic Federation that Kenya would continue to use Boston as its Olympic and
World Championship marathon trial, John Hancock agreed to pay expenses for a sizeable
number of Kenyan entrants each year and to subsidize a marathon training camp in Kenya
for a few years in the mid-1990s (Manners, 1997b).
To date, male entrants have won 20 of the 25 races since 1988. Thus, the present success
of Kenya’s marathon running has received great impetus from the sponsorship provided by
John Hancock for participation in the Boston City Marathon. Locally in Kenya, training
and cross-country runners, both men and women, also increasingly took up running the
marathon. In contrast to the men, however, the pioneer women came via foreign bases.
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Women emerged from the shadow of male domination and in 1989, a London-based medi-
cal student named Pascaline Wangui became the first black African woman to win a major
marathon when she triumphed in Rome. Three years later she won again in Vienna, and in
1994, the German-based Kenyan, Angelina Kanana, won in Hamburg in a world-class time
of 2:29:59. But the real breakthrough came later that year in New York, when a 21-year-old
Tegla Loroupe shocked the world and media with an astonishing 2-minute 23-second vic-
tory over her competitors in her marathon debut (Manners, 1997b, n.p.). The acclamation,
rewards and reception that she received were phenomenal and that marked a turning point
and both women and men from Kenya have not looked back since.
Thus, Kenya’s success in distance running cannot be divorced from, first, the global-
ization of the sport which led to the migration of athletes to places where they were best
placed to succeed (e.g. Joseph Nzau, Ibrahim Hussein, Douglas Wakiihuri, Pascal Wangui
and Angelina Kanana were all based abroad). Second, commercialization played a critical
role as athletes no longer just ran for the pride of representing their country. The entry of
agents further led to the commodification of athletic talent and thereby infused into sport
a competitive hunger for running success and monetary gain. Agents and the search for
talent led to a new dispensation in the mid-1990s when it was no longer enough to have
a few athletes based in Japan, Britain, Germany and the USA. Commercialization and the
drive for mass sports consumption led to investment in the High Altitude Training Centres
in Kenya, which were pioneered by an agent who set up a camp in Kenya and another
in Italy. Elite Kenyan track runners, led by Moses Tanui, who had yet to try a marathon,
joined this Italian sports club run by Gabriele Rosa, a sports physician and coach whose
specialty was the marathon. His clinic outside Milan is appropriately called the Marathon
Sports Medical Centre and his sponsorship from Fila shoe manufacturer in 1995 led to an
expansion of operations to Kenya. In the past few years, he has set up several low-budget
training camps in the running heartland of Rift Valley Province. The camps are operated
by current and former Kenyan athletes who provided leadership, expertise and experience
to young and upcoming athletes. The efforts of Fila were followed by other shoe manu-
factures, which set up rival camps and stimulated ferocious competition. The consequence
of these efforts continues to be noticed around the world. According to Manners (1997b),
in 1991, Kenyan men won four major marathons and turned in 15 performances of better
than 2 hours 20 minutes. By 1996, they had won 38 marathons and recorded an astonishing
212 sub-2:20s in the marathon races.
Manners (1997b) identified several factors that laid the foundation for successful dis-
tance running in Kenya. After boycotting the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Games, the following
changes took place in Kenya following a poor showing in the 1984 Games:
(1) The International Amateur Athletics Federation (changed to International
Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)) started subsidizing the participa-
tion of poorer countries in the World Cross Country Championships, and Kenya
began to take the event seriously. The Kenya Amateur Athletics Association (later
renamed Athletics Kenya) started taking the national cross-country championship
seriously by setting up a 3-week rigorous training camp for the team before each
World Cross Country Championship.
(2) The camp paid off in 1986 with the first of Kenya’s string of 12 straight men’s
team championships. Perhaps more importantly, John Ngugi won the first of his
five individual titles that year and went on to be known to his teammates, and very
soon to all Kenyan runners, as an insatiable trainer. This set the pace for distance
runners to take hard training seriously. Interestingly, Ngugi came from the most
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populous ethnic group in Kenya, the Kikuyu, but one that had not produced runners
of repute. Outstanding runners originate mainly from the Kalenjin, Masai and Kisii
ethnic groups.
(3) The IAAF introduced the World Junior Championships in 1986. Kenya sent a
dozen athletes and came back with four gold and five silver medals. This, together
with the successful entry of junior men’s teams in the World Cross Country
Championships starting in 1985, helped revive the country’s school sports pro-
gramme, which had been hurt by the departure of the expatriate teachers who had
run it in the 1960s and 1970s.
(4) These new events on the calendar were not only fresh goals for aspiring athletes to
aim at, but they were also venues at which a lucky few might make contact with
agents and promoters and start to cash in, in a comparatively modest way, on the
spoils of their newly professional sport.
(5) Three gold medals at the 1987 World Athletics Championships and four at the
1988 Olympics (plus two silvers and a bronze) finally restored morale to pre-
boycott levels. Meanwhile, the new found wealth brought back by the few athletes
who were making money on the European athletics circuit or the US roads became
powerful symbols, and new incentives for which to strive.
(6) In 1990, Mike Boit, a 1972 Olympic bronze medalist and a PhD holder from
Oregon, was named Kenya’s Commissioner of Sports. One of his first official
acts was to eliminate restrictions on athletes’ travel and access to agents. This was
hugely a significant move and led directly to the spiral of opportunities, incen-
tives and ferocious training that have produced the recent crop of world records
(Manners, 1997b).
The success of the runners also intrigued sports scientists who wanted to examine how they
trained, ate and lived (Noakes, 1998; Onywera, 2009; Onywera, Scott, Boit, & Pitsiladis,
2006; Scott & Pitsiladis, 2006, 2007). This scientific curiosity also aroused international
interest from other athletes who wanted to train in Kenya with the Kenyans. International
athletes training in Kenya with locally known athletes sparked a mass following of the
sport, and then athletics shoe manufacturers saw an opportunity and invested in sponsoring
athletes. Seeing these developments, Athletics Kenya noticed that they needed to evolve;
hence, it became mandatory for agents to register with the Federation. Later on, shoe man-
ufacturers formed runners clubs, which involved Puma, Fila, Adidas and Nike. Further,
some retired athletes saw an opportunity and founded their own running camps to nurture
and sell athletic talent.
The principal avenue for one to make a breakthrough is by making it to the different
national teams, thereby getting noticed by an athletics agent and being selected to repre-
sent the country at the Olympic Games and World Athletics Championships. Since 1964,
Kenya has won 64 Olympic medals in distances between 800 m and the marathon, far
more than any other country (“A Map of Olympic Medals”, 2008; IAAF, 2010b; IOC,
2011). It is noticeable that 85% of Kenya’s medals were won in middle and distance races
at the Olympic Games. In an event such as the steeplechase race for men, Kenyans have
made it their own as they have won gold in every Olympic Games that they have entered
since 1968 (IOC, 2011; Manners, 1997b; Njororai, 2010). In addition, Kenyan runners
have dominated the half and full marathon races around the world in the last 22 years.
Data for the winners of the top five marathons held in the cities of New York, London,
Boston, Berlin and Chicago illustrate the level of dominance by Kenya’s distance runners
(see Table 1).
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Table 1. Number of Kenyan runners who have won the five major city marathons.
Marathon city Men Women
Chicago From 1983 to 2011, Kenyans won
12 of the 28 competitions held and
10 of the 11 since 2001. The victory
in 1983 by Joseph Nzau was a
pioneer effort for Kenyan runners
and helped spur interest
Only started winning in 1998 and
retained title until 2001, but has
not won an event since
Boston From 1988 to 2012, won 20 of the
25 races (80%)
From 2000 to 2012, won 9 of the
13 races (69.2%)
London Kenyans won 8 of the 9 races in the
last 9 years
Won six in last 16 years, and in the
2012 race, five Kenyan women
took the first five positions
Berlin Won 11 out of the 17 races since 1995.
By way of comparison, German
runners won the first seven races
held and their last victory was in
1980
Won the races held in 1999 and
2011
New York Since 1970, US runners have won
14 races, while Kenyans have won
10 races since 1987. US runners
won the first 13 races held, but
waited until 2009 to add the 14th
victory (which was earned by
Mebrahtom Keflezighi, a recent
immigrant born in Eritrea)
Kenyan women have won six races
since 1994
Source: Compiled by author from the following sites:
http://www.adventure-marathon.com/Chicago-Marathon-results.aspx
http://www.adventure-marathon.com/Berlin-Marathon-results.aspx
http://www.baa.org/races/boston-marathon/results-commentary/marathon-results.aspx
http://www.ingnycmarathon.org/Results.htm
http://www.adventure-marathon.com/London-Marathon-results.aspx
Table 1 illustrates the emergence of Kenyan runners in the marathon and their recent
domination of the world’s five major races in Chicago, Boston, New York, London and
Berlin. A review of the 2011/2012 results in these five major marathons further show
Kenya’s dominance. In the Berlin 2011 Marathon race, Kenyan men finished in the top
four positions, and the winner, Patrick Makau, set a world record of 2:03:38. The women’s
race was also won by a Kenyan (Adventure Marathon, 2012a). At the Boston City Marathon
for 2011, out of the 15 top women finishers, Kenyans took five of the spots, finishing first,
third, fourth, ninth and thirteenth. Among the men, Kenyan runners took seven of the top
15 positions, finishing first, second, sixth, seventh, tenth, eleventh and thirteenth (Boston
Athletic Association, 2012). In the 2011 New York Marathon, out of the top 10 finishers,
there were three male Kenyans who finished first, second and eighth, and the women also
captured three of the top 10 positions, finishing third, sixth and seventh (New York City
Marathon, 2012). In the 2011 Chicago City Marathon, three Kenyan men took the top three
positions, while the women did not place in the top five (Adventure Marathon, 2012b).
Finally, at the 2012 London Marathon, the sheer dominance of Kenyan distance runners
was demonstrated with the men placing first, second, sixth and seventh among the top
10 finishers while the women took all five top positions (“London Marathon, 2012 winners
and results”, 2012). This summary of the dominance in the marathon races by Kenyans is
further confirmed by the top 50 half marathon male runners in 2012 between January and
April.
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8W.W.S. Njororai
Kenya
Ethiopia
Eritrea
Japan
22.0
74.0
2.0 2.0
Figure 1. Countries of origin of men among the top 50 in the half marathon in 2012 (%).
The dominance of Kenyan male distance runners is evident in Figure 1, which illus-
trates that the number of runners ranked among the top 50 by the IAAF according to their
finish times in the various half marathon races between January and April 2012. Out of the
top 50 half marathon runners, Kenyans took 37 (74%) positions compared to 11 (22%) for
runners from Ethiopia, and followed by runners from Eritrea and Japan with one apiece
(2%). Thus, Kenyan athletes continue to assert their presence in the distance events of both
the half marathon and the marathon, revealing the amount of rich talent that exists in the
country. Given the many quality runners, there is no guarantee for just one individual to rep-
resent the country in high-profile events such as the Olympic Games and World Athletics
Championships. For example, in 1996 Daniel Komen, a very talented distance runner,
failed to make Kenya’s Olympic team going to the Atlanta Games (Manners, 1997b), and
yet just 2 weeks after the Games, he set a world record in 3000 m, a record that stands to
this day. Another high-profile case is that of Peter Makau, the world record holder in the
marathon, who was left off of the Kenyan marathon team competing at the 2012 London
Olympic Games. These two examples illustrate the challenges and disappointments that
Kenyan elite athletes experience when trying to qualify for international events such as the
Olympic Games and the World Athletics Championships. It is this competitiveness that
also spurs the athletes to excel at the international level.
Clearly, Kenyan runners compete well in the various international athletic events
including the Olympic Games, World Athletics Championships and World Cross Country
Championships. According to Pitsiladis et al. (2004), the unparalleled achievements of
Kenyan runners on the international running circuit are in stark contrast to Kenya’s eco-
nomic and social infrastructure, where it ranks poorly in nearly every category (e.g.
life expectancy, per capita income and child mortality). The achievements contradict
Heinemann’s (1993) argument that factors such as financial possibilities, provision of
facilities, the availability of managers and trainers and the culturally determined way
of life, action orientations and limited socialization into sport led to limited possibil-
ities, capabilities and readiness for people from developing countries to participate in
sport as it is exported from western industrial countries. Heinemann’s assertion that
“even if developing countries concentrated the means at their disposal for sports advance-
ment on high-performance sport, their chances of success would still be very limited”
(p. 149) under-estimates the seriousness with which track and field and sports in general
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are taken in developing countries such as Kenya (Njororai, 2010). Thus, high-performance
sports, despite Heinemann’s assertions, are not an exclusive domain of industrialized
countries.
Kenya’s athletics distance running landscape and globalization
Distance running in Kenya has become a mass movement. Cross-country competitions and
weekend athletics meetings draw large crowds of participants, spectators and mass media.
The success of any sport is dependent on the support that it has with the local population
that produces and nurtures talent as well as provides a market for the consumption of the
products that come forth. Thus, the distance running landscape offers an ideal medium to
generate thousands of runners through its country-wide school system where cross-country
and track and field competitions are a major part of co-curricular activity. The globalization
of the sport that has made it possible for international athletes to go and train in Kenya, the
infusion of capital in the formation of athletics clubs and establishment of training camps,
the entry into the fray by manufacturers of athletic shoes and the competition between the
different club sponsors, the presence of role models and the competitiveness of the athletic
meets have all contributed to the aroused passion and enthusiasm for the sport. These
socio-political as well as the potential monetary benefits have placed distance running as
a viable and realistic career pathway for many young people. A lot of young athletes who
have grown up in impoverished homes have broken the barrier of poverty through running.
Indeed, it takes only one or two major breakthroughs in road races for one to become a
sought after runner in the USA and Europe. A lot of young people in Kenya’s rift valley
live for and look up to the many successful distance runners in their neighbourhoods and
they grow up wanting to follow in their footsteps. Running has become a viable career for
many youth, and their parents provide the necessary encouragement as well as the readily
available training centres, schools, local competitions, coaches and sponsorships by major
shoe manufacturers.
According to Sniderman (2010), the dominance or absence of some populations of
people in some sports has to be explained by the shared attitudes of most members of that
population. According to him, the most productive approach to all athletic dominance or
virtual absence is the cultural influence on competitors in the relevant populations such as
countries, regions, ethnic groups and even schools and clubs. Just like Kenyans in track,
the dominance of African Americans in basketball, American in football and track and
field, India and Pakistan in cricket, Australia and New Zealand in rugby, cricket and net-
ball, South Africa in Rugby and Argentina and Brazil in soccer, among others, can be
situated within the social norms and expectations of their cultural settings (Danielsson,
2010; Kolig & Kabir, 2008; Njororai, 2009a, 2010; Sniderman, 2010). According to Baker
and Horton (2004), socio-cultural factors are a significant and often overlooked influence
on the development of expertise. The dynamic interaction between the inherent abilities of
an individual and the favourable physical, socio-cultural and administrative structures are
critical to the Kenyan success in middle and distance running. Thus, the contextualization
of Kenya’s success in middle and distance running has to be situated within the dynamics
between genetic makeup of the athlete and an enabling environment leading to elite per-
formance (Njororai, 2010). Kenyan runners have capitalized on their innate ability which
interacts with their hard work as well as an enabling socio-political environment to excel
in distance running to the envy of countries with a better economic foundation.
This interactive approach is distinct from the historical debate on the relative influ-
ence of genes (nature) (Entine, 2000; Noakes, 1998) and environment (nurture) (Scott &
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10 W.W.S. Njororai
Pitsiladis, 2006, 2007), which has characterized academic interest in Kenya’s success in
distance running. New studies by Australian and Canadian researchers (Davids & Baker,
2007; Phillips, Davids, Renshaw, & Portus, 2010) discount the dualistic positions of nature
and nurture on sports performance and instead advocate for a dynamical system theory as
a multidisciplinary theoretical rationale which argues that multiple interacting constraints
shape the development of elite performers. According to Phillips et al. (2010), genetic
diversity may be responsible for a small part of training or performance response dif-
ferences between individuals, but only when there is a favourable interaction with vital
environmental constraints are performance benefits observed. Thus, elite-level perfor-
mance by an individual has to be understood at the level of individual interactions with
key environmental and task constraints. The key aspects include an individual adapting
and developing through training, practice, coaching and competing (Phillips et al., 2010,
p. 281). These elements of training, practice, competition and role models interact in
unique ways to shape Kenyan youth into distance runners.
The dynamical system takes into account the innate ability of the individual runners
that has to be identified and nurtured for one to blossom into an elite runner. For a long
time, researchers attributed the dominance of Kenyan athletes in middle and long distance
running to genetic advantage (Entine, 2000; Noakes, 1998). However, in trying to explain
the success of Kenyan runners, many scientists seem to downplay the role of training in
favour of living at altitude and having a unique genetic makeup. Indeed, the central thesis
in Entine’s (2000) argument is that the Kenyan runners – and the black race in general – are
genetically advantaged. However, research by Scott and Pitsiladis (2006, 2007) acknowl-
edged that genetic studies have not identified anything unique among Kenyan runners and
therefore concluded that environmental factors appear more influential than genetics in
distance running success. According to Scott and Pitsiladis (2007), “research on the genet-
ics of the African running phenomenon demonstrates that the athletes, although arising
from distinct regions of east Africa, do not arise from long-term limited genetic isolate ...
environmental factors appear more influential than genetic in distance running success”
(p. 426). This finding therefore counters Entine’s argument that Kenyan athletes only excel
because of their unique genetic makeup.
Nonetheless, even when more adequate genetic data are available that suggest some
inherent genetic advantage, the frequency of top-level sports athletes will be meaningfully
different from that predicted by genetic possibility (Lucia, Moran, Zihong, & Ruiz, 2010;
Onywera, 2009). Out of the global population, only a small fraction, irrespective of genetic
endowment, participates in the artificial selection process (including stringent training reg-
imens since childhood) that ends with the attainment of elite sports performance (Lucia
et al., 2010). Many humans with a theoretically optimal genetic endowment will never
enroll in competitive sports. On the other hand, there are numerous other contributors to
the “complex trait” of being an athletic champion that are likely not reducible to defined
genetic polymorphisms, yet play a significant part in influencing athletic excellence. These
include both internal (e.g. athletic condition, strategy, technique, kinematics, psychologi-
cal disposition and constitution) and external factors (notably, social support, opportunity,
local and international athletics structure, role models, national policies, infrastructure and
economic possibility), as well as the interactions among environmental factors and gene
expression (Njororai, 2007a; Singh, 1982) during critical periods of development through
a process known as epigenetics (Lucia et al., 2010; Waterland & Michels, 2007). According
to Lucia et al. (2010), applying stringent training regimens since early childhood in some
sports, such as gymnastics, produces champions in only selected countries. In a like man-
ner, distance runners from Kenya have perfected their own unique path shaped by the
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conditions in their country. The authors assert that “being an athletic champion takes much
more than having ‘champion genes’. This is part of the beauty of sport” (p. 101).
The presence of a high concentration of distance runners in one country has there-
fore led to an exploration of options outside the country as avenues to gain access to
international competitions and an opportunity to cash in on their athletic labour.
Sports labour migration
According to the IAAF’s (2010a) list of Kenyan athletes who changed national alle-
giance, there were five athletes (27.8%) who moved to Qatar, three (16.7%) to Bahrain,
three (16.7%) to France, three (16.7%) to the USA, two (11%) to Finland and one each
to Netherlands and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Eight athletes (44%) therefore moved to
Middle East countries of Qatar and Bahrain. The data exclude athletes who moved to
these countries before they had formally registered with Athletics Kenya, so according
to Okoth (2005), more than 40 athletes had in fact moved to Middle East countries com-
pared to the eight reflected on the IAAF (2010a) list. It is curious to note that only three
(16.7%) athletes moved to an English-speaking country. Given that Kenya was formerly
colonized by Britain and hence has an English-speaking legacy, one might have expected
that the Kenyan athletes would have preferred to move to Britain or another English-
speaking country. This movement of Kenyan athletes therefore goes counter to the trend
where colonial powers of Great Britain, France and Spain tend to reap the benefits of their
former empires (Connor & Griffin, n.d.). For France, her relationship with former colonies
entails both language and citizenship rights, which encourage athletes and soccer players
from West Africa to move to Europe. With the lack of historical and cultural ties between
Kenya and countries such as Qatar, Bahrain, France, Finland, Netherlands and Bosnia and
Herzegovina, there should be other pull/push factors for Kenyan athletes other than colo-
nial ties. Consequently, the movement of Kenyan athletes in the past 20 years might well
be situated within the global dynamics of economic inequality, commercialization and pro-
fessionalization of sport which has led to athletic talent moving from regions of surplus to
those of deficits or those willing to pay more for the services.
Maguire (1999) and Magee and Sugden (2002) developed typologies to categorize the
migrant athletes. Maguire’s typology included mercenaries, settlers, nomads, cosmopoli-
tan, pioneer and returnee. This categorization was based on interviews with athletes drawn
from soccer, basketball, cricket and rugby. This typology was very close to that developed
by Magee and Sugden (2002) after interviewing soccer players in England. Their typology
of migrant athletes included mercenary, settler and nomadic cosmopolitan, ambitionist,
exile and expelled. One can argue that the categories applicable to Kenyan runners over
the years include mercenary, nomadic cosmopolitan, settler, returnee and ambitionist.
These categories are not mutually exclusive, however, as they overlap in some instances.
To clarify, a brief description of each of the applicable categories follows:
(1) Mercenary: A mercenary athlete is one who is motivated by earning capacity and
who migrates for reasons of economic reward. This motivation for financial gain
could be on a short-term basis (Love & Kim, 2011; Magee & Sugden, 2002;
Maguire, 1999). The careers for athletes are short. It is therefore prudent to maxi-
mize the opportunity to earn as much as possible so as to invest in their future. The
athletes from Kenya who moved to Bahrain and Qatar did so based on financial
grounds and therefore could qualify as being mercenary (Njororai, 2010).
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12 W.W.S. Njororai
(2) Nomadic Cosmopolitan: According to Magee and Sugden (2002), athletes who fall
in this category include individuals who are motivated by a desire to experience
different nations and cultures. Maguire (1999) explains that this group of athletes
is motivated by cosmopolitan engagement with migration where the desire is to
seek new experiences. The nature of the athletics circuit involves athletes moving
and competing in different countries around the world (Njororai, 2010). Athletics
agents have therefore strategically set up camps for their athletes to train and stay
while on the competition circuit, which qualifies them as nomadic in lifestyle.
(3) Settler: This category of athletes is composed of those who move to another coun-
try to compete and continue to stay beyond the end of their athletic careers (Love &
Kim, 2011). Indeed, Maguire (1999) describes this group as sports migrants who
subsequently stay and settle in the society where they perform their labour. There
have been many Kenyan-born athletes who have moved to settle and representother
countries including Wilson Kipketer (Denmark), Bernard Lagat (USA) and Lorna
Kiplagat (Netherlands) (Njororai, 2010). While these athletes moved to settle in
their adopted countries, the ones who moved to Bahrain and Qatar only represent
these countries and spend their time in Kenya and the international athletic camps
set up by their agents.
(4) Returnee: This group of athletes may move to compete in another country, but
after some time are obligated to return to their homeland. Such athletes give-in
to the lure of home soil which overcomes any of the advantages of staying in the
host country (Love & Kim, 2011; Maguire, 1999). The case of Leonard Mucheru,
although isolated, is a typical example. He moved to Bahrain in 2003 and returned
to Kenya in 2007 after being stripped off his Bahrain citizenship.
(5) Ambitionist: This category transcends a number of categories. However, athletes
in this category are characterized by three dimensions: (i) the desire to achieve
a sport career anywhere, (ii) the preference for playing in a certain location as
compared to elsewhere and (iii) the desire to improve one’s career by moving to a
higher-quality league (Love & Kim, 2011). This category is similar to that of the
settler, although the ambitionist athletes venture into new countries with a desire
to elevate themselves and, more importantly, to continue to excel in athletics. The
success and longevity of Bernard Lagat, who represented Kenya at the 2000 and
2004 Olympic Games and the USA at the 2008 Games, is a clear example of an
individual exhibiting an ambitionist character. If he had remained in Kenya, it is
doubtful if he would have even made the team for the 2007, 2009 and 2011 World
Athletics Championships, yet he won medals for the US team at some of these
events.
Attraction to the Middle East
The athletic labour flow to the affluent Middle East countries from other countries per-
ceived to be on the periphery of modernization has to be situated within the framework of
inequality, especially the financial compensation of an individual athlete (Thibault, 2009).
Countries lacking the requisite sporting culture now have the option of importing already
proven talent with mercenary ambitions and paying them as the case is for the Middle East
countries of Qatar and Bahrain. These countries are well endowed with wealth, but lack
sporting talent to project their international images. This creates a situation where athletes
from countries with a high concentration of talent are motivated to move to new nations
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to cash in on their athletic ability, which has become a commodity for sale to the highest
bidder. One of the major net exporters of athletic talent is Kenya, which ranks highly on
the track and field performance index at the global level despite the supposed economic,
political and cultural constraints in its development endeavour.
The Middle East is emerging as a major economic attraction as well as a sporting
destination. Key cities such as Doha and Dubai now regularly host globally attractive
tournaments in golf, Formula One Motor Grand Prix, tennis and track and field, as well
as regional games. Indeed, Bahrain is now the headquarters of the Formula One Grand
Prix even in the absence of any motor-sport tradition, and Qatar has hosted Asian Games
(Bahrain Economic Development Board, 2008; Investment Promotion Department, 2011;
Simms & Rendel, 2004). Additionally, Qatar won the rights to host the 2022 FIFA World
Cup at the expense of the USA and several other major sporting nations (FIFA, 2010).
At the Olympic Games level, both Bahrain and Qatar are ranked quite low. For exam-
ple, Bahrain has never won a medal at the Olympic Games. The only time she came close
to winning was at the 2008 Beijing Olympics when her athlete won the 1500 m race, but
was later disqualified and the gold was awarded to a Kenyan runner who had finished
second. On the other hand, Qatar has so far won only two bronze medals in the 1500 m
race in 1992 and in weight lifting in 2000 (IOC, 2011). Thus, compared to Kenya, these
countries have not accomplished any major athletic success. However, given their rich min-
eral resource base and wealth, they are keen to succeed in sport participation (Bahrain
Economic Development Board, 2008; Investment Promotion Department, 2011) and are
luring athletes from other countries including Kenya. The unbalanced nature of global
wealth and sporting corporate power has created movement of sporting talent from less
well paying to higher paying clubs and now nations. When Kenya’s athletes move to other
countries, they may do so on a permanent basis (change of citizenship), on transitory basis
(i.e. short-term basis for training and preparation for competitions) and on marital grounds
(Njororai, 2010). However, those going to the Middle East change citizenship, names and
even religion (Wheatcroft, 2006) and receive monetary compensation (Njororai, 2010).
Consequences for the athletes running for other nations
The success in middle and distance running has come to define the Kenyan experience.
The success of the athletes personifies the hopes, wishes and dreams of ordinary people.
The athletes are regarded as heroes and are therefore viewed, more so than politicians,
as representatives of the nation. According to Jackson and Ponic (2001), sports heroes in
many countries are viewed “as representatives of the nation state and play an important
role in the social construction of national identity” (p. 44). Thus, sport is a form of popular
culture that links national symbols of character with the ordinary lives of people and with
widely shared popular experiences (Sam & Scherer, 2005). According to Maguire (2005),
global sporting success reinforces national esteem. Global sports are a medium through
which images and stories are told to us about ourselves and others. This is most evident
through elite-level performance where ordinary people remotely achieve success through
the efforts of the athletes (Maguire, 2005). In Kenya, one can argue that the success in
middle and distance running has enhanced feelings of national unity despite the presence of
major societal divisions based on class, wealth, ethnicity and language, and along regional
and political lines (Njororai, 2009b).
Given the many political, economic and social divisions in Kenya, sport is one means of
transcending them. The pioneer runners for Kenya took pride in representing the country as
athletics was still an amateur sport. Wearing one’s national colours and having the national
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14 W.W.S. Njororai
anthem of the winner’s country played, after the presentation of the awards, engendered a
sense of pride and accomplishment (Roberts, 2005). However, with the emergence of forces
of commercialization and the commodification of athletic talent, the motivation to run is
mainly to earn a living and provide for those around the athlete. A few Kenyan athletes who
chose the path of seeking a better lifestyle in Bahrain, Qatar and other countries provide a
lens to the many challenges those individual athletes, who migrate, experience.
Acceptance by the local population
Migrant athletes often face hostility from teammates of the host country and the local
people who feel that foreigners are benefiting from their country at their expense. For exam-
ple, a blogger on Runner’s World (2007) captured the lack of a warm reception extended
to a migrant athlete when, at the end of the 1500 m race during the World Athletics
Championships won by Kenyan-born American Bernard Lagat, another American, Alan
Webb – who was initially favoured to win – refused to acknowledge his victorious
teammate. Examples from other sports also reveal a lack of universal acceptance of foreign-
born athletes who represent their adopted countries. To illustrate, a debate developed
among some Singaporeans with regard to the gold medal haul by foreign athletes in the
Commonwealth Games. The contentious issue was that medals were won by foreign ath-
letes who had been given Singaporean citizenship and many Singaporeans would have
preferred to see home-grown local athletes win. Only then would this give them the feeling
of national pride and a sense of national identity. They also noted that the emigrant athletes
were not able to sing Singaporean national anthem (Bin Diapi, 2002). In another example,
in 2004, the Greek baseball coach threatened to resign because out of the 24 members
of the Olympic team, 22 were either American or Canadian. He felt that even though the
Americans were of higher quality and were welcome, it was unfair to the local Greek
players (Carlson, 2004). From these examples, one can sense the uneasiness and even
hostility towards foreign-born athletes. Such examples also bring out several key multicul-
tural issues that can be addressed in advance by providing quality and culturally sensitive
counselling to athletes.
Change of nationality and its implications
Change of nationality entails the readiness to immerse and adopt the local socio-political
as well as cultural orientation. However, athletes who move solely because of the financial
rewards fail to appreciate the sacrifice that such a move entails. Some of the implications
for change of nationality include adopting the national anthem of their adopted country
and possible changes of names, religion and social and economic status. Some of these
changes demand a drastic transformation and a total remaking of oneself, especially that
of name change. For example, a Kenyan runner who migrated to Bahrain lost his citizen-
ship and his livelihood after becoming the first athlete from an Arab country to compete
in Israel (Labatet, 2008; Sharrock, 2007). The identity of the athlete had changed from
Kenyan (African) to an Arab without his appreciation of the implications of the transfor-
mation. For a Kenyan (previously Leonard Mucheru), there was nothing wrong in running
in Israel, but as an Arab (now named Mushir Salim Jowhar), it was an issue serious enough
to cost him his citizenship. This is a serious issue given that some countries do not have sep-
aration of state from religion. The name change from Leonard Mucheru to Mushir Salim
Jowhar meant a change in nationality and religious identity, as well as the adoption of a
new persona. Unfortunately, the athlete had no prior awareness of the change in terms of
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social and political implications. After winning, Leonard Mucheru told the Jerusalem post
that he was very proud of running in Israel (Sharrock, 2007).
The case above clearly shows an athlete who faces a huge dilemma brought about by
the change in nationality. The athlete has changed his national identity from being African
to being Arabic, yet he does not seem to understand the implication and the responsibilities
that go along with the change of his nationality and therefore political orientation. Back in
Kenya, the athlete is still referred to by his African name rather than the new one depicting a
sense of eternal possession and therefore lack of recognition of the new identity (Sharrock,
2007). He also continued to live in Nairobi while he ran for Bahrain. Commenting on the
issue of Leonard Mucheru, the then Kenyan Sports Minister Maina Kamanda said that he
should have adhered to the agreements he entered into with the Bahrain government when
he become a citizen of that country (Mbaisi & Toskin, 2007). It was therefore not surprising
that he was stripped off his new citizenship and it took a while for his Kenyan status to be
restored (Labatet, 2008) making him a returnee athlete as per Maguire’s (1999) typology
of athletes engaged in international labour migration. This athlete moved to compete in
another country but after contravening his new country’s international travel agreements,
he was expelled and therefore had to return to the original homeland.
Change of names and religious beliefs
Religion is a powerful socialization agent across the world as it is embedded in the social
fabric of a people. It is therefore a challenge to shed one religion and pick up another in
adulthood, especially if it is not one’s conscious and considered decision. To an athlete,
change of nationality is tied to athletic ability and therefore the potential rewards. The
cultural transformation that is expected to accompany the change often remains under the
radar and not given much significance by the athletes and their families.
An athlete who exemplifies this religious dualism and therefore its potential conflict is
Stephen Cherono, a Christian who changed his name and religion to become Saeef Saaeed
Shaheen, a Muslim. However, unlike Christians who practice a religion that is separate
from their civic engagements, Muslims practice Islam as a way of life (Kolig & Kabir,
2008). In Kenya, which is predominantly Christian, there is separation of religion from the
affairs of state. Religion is therefore a private matter. However, for a Kenyan-born athlete
who changes religion and reflects his new Islamic lifestyle, he is presented with a number
of challenges. These challenges compromise the integration of immigrant athletes into
local life and thereby negate any transmission of athletic cultural values in the new nations.
To the athletes, the motivations for the change of citizenship were money and access to
international competitions; hence, the implied change of religion through change of name
to a Muslim as well as Arabic name was not well understood in terms social consequences.
More research is needed to explore this phenomenon.
Access to international success and economic empowerment
Historically, sport has acted as an economic escalator out of poverty in the western world
as well as in most parts of the world. Therefore, money is arguably the most important
motivation for athletes, especially those from countries where poverty levels are very high.
This fits well with the categories from Maguire’s (1999) and Magee and Sugden’s (2002)
typologies of mercenary and ambitionists where athletes are motivated by material gain to
migrate to a location where they will get better return on their labour. The ambitionists
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16 W.W.S. Njororai
category of athletes is characterized by a desire to achieve a sport career anywhere irre-
spective of location. Their motivation also is rooted in the desire to improve their careers
by moving to a higher quality league or where the opportunity is readily available (Love &
Kim, 2011). The Kenyan runners to Bahrain and Qatar fit into the ambitionists category
as they sought an opportunity to access international competitions as well as maximize on
the return to their athletic labour. Furthermore, by migrating, they had a better chance to
achieve financial success as well as competing to win medals at the Olympic level. Winning
an Olympic medal is not just a pinnacle of one’s career, but a means to gain wealth. For
most Kenyan athletes, winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games is simply a gateway to
earn money which could transform their lives and that of their communities (Jarvie, 2007).
However, the high concentration of distance runners in Kenya implies that there is a high
turnover of athletes.
Qualification for major championships is not guaranteed. However, moving to coun-
tries such as Bahrain and Qatar provides easier access to international competitions where
entries are limited to three per event (or four if one is a defending champion). Asked to
comment on his son’s new status, Stephen Cherono’s father commented: “I don’t care
what they call him, he went to secure his future and that is what we want all young men
to do. To me he is still Stephen and when he visits he will always bring me something”
(Njenga & Macharia, 2005, p. 39). Haile Gebreselassie, another African athlete, has left
no doubt about both the social and political responsibility of the athlete and the limits and
possibilities of sport in relation to poverty in his country. He acknowledges that sport can
help eradicate poverty although it is not the only means (Jarvie, 2007). Therefore, despite
the challenges of migrating to new nations, the economic spin-offs are worthwhile. The
athletes use their new found wealth to improve and secure their future while also invest-
ing to create jobs in Kenya. For example, despite the troubles that Leonard Mucheru went
through, he founded a company that employs over 63 people in Nairobi (Labatet, 2008).
There also have been investments in high altitude training centres that cater for local and
international athletes keen on training in Kenya (Kitula, 2008; Lukalo, 2005).
National loyalty
Saif Saaeed Shaheen, formerly Stephen Cherono, is a steeplechase runner and currently
holds the world record for the 3000 m steeplechase. He was born in Keiyo, Kenya, but
now represents Qatar. His older brother, Abraham Cherono, is also a steeplechase runner.
Cherono’s (now Shaheen) migration to Qatar generated controversy because of his change
of citizenship and the challenge he posed to the Kenyans in the 3000 m steeplechase, which
they have dominated for many years. The dominance was threatened with a contested iden-
tity shift. If Cherono won the steeplechase, he would be celebrated even though the honour
would go to Qatar and the national anthem played is Qatari. The cultural significance and
value of the 3000 m steeplechase event in the history of Kenyan athletics is challenged
whenever Shaheen wins the event and aligns himself with Qatar symbolically overshad-
owing the economic benefits (Lukalo, 2005). Interviewed by the BBC in 2005, Cherono
declared that, “Athletics is a short career and I went there looking for a better life and
better prospects. It’s not that I don’t like Kenya, I love it” (Mynott, 2005).
The President of IAAF, LamineDiack, seemed to empathize with athletes defecting to
other nations, arguing that it is hard for a starving family to stop their son or daughter
from going for US$100,000 (Kshs.7.6 m) if they defected. He implored the government
of Kenya and other countries losing their athletic labour to improve their economic, polit-
ical and social frameworks that would encourage athletes to stay at home (Mbaisi, 2005).
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In contrast, Jacques Rogge, President of the IOC, felt that from a moral point of view, the
transfer market in athletes should be avoided. He stated that they do not like to see ath-
letes lured by large incentives to other countries and then given a passport when they arrive
at the airport (Carlson, 2004; Okoth, 2005). Thus, with two contradictory views from the
IAAF and IOC Presidents, one cannot be optimistic that a resolution is going to be arrived
at soon.
Social isolation and loneliness away from family
Many runners who move to run for other countries make bold moves as they consciously
choose to break ties with close family members. For athletes who moved to Qatar and
Bahrain, their family members still live in Kenya and they also prefer to live and train in
the hills of Kenya. However, due to the disappointment of the Kenyan political leaders, a
decision was made to stop such athletes from entering the country as freely as they used
too. According to the then Minister of Sports, Ochillo Ayacko, the defectors and those
who help them have interests which are hostile to Kenya, and therefore they were now
to get very limited visas to visit Kenya and they are not be permitted to train in Kenya
(Mynott, 2005). The consequences of denying athletes who defected access to Kenya and
their family members create social isolation and loneliness in a new country where they
have no social connections.
“We and I balance” dichotomy
The globalization and commercialization of sport have increased the drive for success
among individual athletes. Athletes have become brands in themselves and unlike in the
past when running for the country offered enough satisfaction, the present day athlete wants
to maximize the financial benefits to secure him/her for life. According to Stokvis (2000),
“since the 1970s, it has been necessary for top-class athletes to make conscious choices in
the construction of their sporting careers” (p. 22). In modern days, athletes have become
more self-conscious and self-centred, and consequently, success that previously was sought
through representation of the national state of birth can now be sought through an adopted
country and where even greater financial rewards can be reaped. According to Stokvis
(2000), the theoretical lens of the “we and I balance” has been used to analyse shifts in
self-perception of people in the course of the development of humanity. According to this
concept of “we and I balance,” when societies become more differentiated and complicated
and the scale of social lives enlarges, men tend to identify less with specific social groups
and see themselves more as individuals in control of their own destiny. In this case, people
do not automatically accept the established rules and standards of behaviour of the group
and they make more choices for themselves (Stokvis, 2000).
For Kenyan athletes who moved abroad in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, it is clear
that they made up their minds to pursue individual goals and ambitions at the expense
of their country of birth. The balance between the “we and I” was therefore destabilized.
Lack of balance consequently destabilizes the “we and I balance” even when in the short
run, the athletes may convince themselves that the move was for their advantage at the
individual level. Indeed, athletes such as Bernard Lagat and Wilson Kipketer paid a heavy
prize as both missed the 2005 World Athletics Championships and 1996 Olympic Games,
respectively. Saif Saaeed Shaheen (formerly Cherono) also felt the repercussions of the
defection to Qatar, as he was barred from competing in the 2004 Olympic Games. This
was due to an IOC rule that athletes may not compete in international events for a period
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18 W.W.S. Njororai
of 3 years subsequent to changing citizenship. This rule may be waived in cases where the
athlete and the governing athletics bodies from the two countries involved are willing to
forgo the penalty. In the case of Saif Saaeed Shaheen and Wilson Kipketer, the Kenyan
Athletics Federation was not willing to forgo the penalty, and all were barred from the
Olympics, and Bernard Lagat missed the World Athletics Championships in 2005. Kenya
refused to compromise for fear of the competition that these athletes were going to offer to
her own athletes.
Culture of running in new country
Success in sport is not just an individual affair. The whole sporting environment has to
be conducive for sustained success. This implies a change of the sporting culture. The
immigrant athletes therefore are faced with the challenge of impacting positively the local
sporting culture similar to the success of Brazilian and Argentine soccer that also was built
around immigrants blending with the local culture (Danielsson, 2010). For any sporting
development to take place, shared attitudes that are supportive of the endeavour must be in
place (Sniderman, 2010). According Sniderman, the most productive approach to all ath-
letic dominance or virtual absence is the cultural influence on competitors in the relevant
populations such as countries, regions, ethnic groups and even schools/clubs. This argu-
ment is corroborated by Baker and Horton (2004), who argue that socio-cultural factors
are a significant and often overlooked influence on the development of expertise. Thus,
with language barriers and social isolation, the impact of the immigrant athletes on the
local population remains questionable. It is therefore worth exploring the impact of newly
migrated athletes on the local sporting cultures as well as how well they practice the newly
imposed religious doctrine.
International success and prominence
The countries whose athletes win gold medals at the major international events such as
the World Athletics Championships, Olympic Games, among others, have their national
anthems played in front of millions of television viewers worldwide. Additionally, suc-
cess at such championships is celebrated nationally creating a sense of nationhood and
patriotism. Athletes have become roving ambassadors that advertise the names of their
respective countries. Thus, countries with limited athletic pools such as Qatar and Bahrain
have to outsource the talent so as to benefit from their global appeal during major cham-
pionships. For example, Gregory Konchellah won gold in the 1500 m race for Bahrain in
the World Athletics Championships in 2009, and Stephen Cherono won gold in the 3000 m
steeplechase for Qatar in the 2005 and 2007 Championships beating the Kenyans who had
previously dominated the event.
Migration implications
The issue of athlete migration, although on the increase, brings with it mixed interpreta-
tions. On the side of the donor nation, there is a feeling of betrayal, pain and loss (Thibault,
2009). On the other hand, the receiving country looks forward to an improved sporting
image when the athlete involved wins at the international level. For the individual athlete,
the prospects of a better and secure lifestyle, better financial incentives and athletic success
far outweigh any social and political costs related to the nation of birth (Thibault, 2009).
Nevertheless, the case of Leonard Mucheru who was celebrated when winning, but then
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Leisure/Loisir 19
disowned when he mistakenly competed in Israel evokes the pitfalls associated with immi-
grant status. In the recent past, two Kenyan athletes who moved to Bahrain (i.e. Leonard
Mucheru and Gregory Konchellah) have run into problems forcing them to run or threaten
to go back to Kenya to save their running careers. For Konchellah, even though he won a
gold medal at the 2009 World Athletics Championship for Bahrain, he did not receive the
promised bonuses. He publicly accused the Bahrain Athletics Association of withholding
bonuses, showing a lack of respect and encouraging him to lie about his age. He therefore
threatened to renounce his Bahraini citizenship and return to his native Kenya (Musumba,
2009b). According to Musumba (2009b) and the Daily Nation (2009), there are young
Kenyan-born athletes whose passports have been withheld by the government of Bahrain
and who appealed to Athletics Kenya and the Government to intervene. This dilemma and
mistreatment of Kenyan-born athletes in the Middle East could be widespread, especially
for those who defected without the knowledge of the Kenyan Government.
These negative experiences are not new as there are precedents that illustrate that immi-
grant athletes are embraced when they win, but are quickly disowned when things do not
transpire as anticipated. For example, Sam and Scherer (2005) argue that the degree to
which host countries embrace athletes varies substantially and is closely tied to their sport-
ing successes. The authors cite the example of Canada, “where European and Russian
hockey players are still frequent targets of xenophobic and disparaging stereotypes by
some cultural commentators who argue that skilled foreign players are incompatible with
‘Canadian values’ of rugged toughness” (p. 1491). Jackson and Ponic (2001) contend that
Ben Johnson, who was stripped of the gold medal in the 1988 Olympic Games after failing
a drug test, was transformed from a Jamaican immigrant to Jamaican-Canadian, and as he
became more successful, he became simply Canadian. But as soon as he was disqualified,
he was “downgraded” to Jamaican-Canadian. Thus, for an immigrant athlete, acceptance
is contingent upon translating personal achievement into national sporting pride for the
new nation. This is even more critical for the Kenyan-born athletes who moved solely for
financial reasons and not cultural connections.
Despite the socio-political and cultural challenges for the athletes, positive develop-
ments have occurred as a result of athlete defections from Kenya to Middle East countries
and other parts of the world. These defections revealed a policy crisis on the part of
Athletics Kenya and the Government as they were embarrassing to the nation (Lukalo,
2005). The defections also revealed policy loopholes that needed to be addressed by the
government if Kenya’s athletic prowess was to be sustained at the international level. One
of the important consequences of the athletic exodus between 1998 and 2006 was the inclu-
sion and approval of a clause in the constitution allowing dual citizenship (Government of
Kenya, 2010). This development is a welcome one as it provides options to athletes, espe-
cially those that reside in other countries for marital reasons, as temporary residents, or for
studies. Athletes with dual citizenship would have a choice as to which country to run, but
still have access to a second country, especially if it is their country of birth.
The second major outcome is the institutionalization of incentives for athletes repre-
senting the country in international competitions. The structured system formulated by
the government makes it clear what an athlete is entitled to when he or she wins a gold,
silver or bronze medal and makes the team for a major championship rather than relying on
the previous system of spontaneous rewards (Musumba, 2009a). This is critical given that
some retired athletes, such as Amos Biwott who won Kenya’s first Olympic gold medal
in 3000 m steeplechase, among others, wallow in poverty (Labatet, 2009). Lack of eco-
nomic and financial security was a key push factor for the defecting athletes moving to the
Middle East.
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20 W.W.S. Njororai
Third, the period of defection of male athletes also coincided with the emergence of
women athletes. For a long time, only male athletes won medals at the Olympic level.
However, since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, women have continued to improve their contri-
bution to the medal tally for Kenya from two (silver and bronze) to five (two gold and three
silver) in the 2008 Beijing games (IAAF, 2010a). The diversification of medal sources
reflects the urgent need to exploit the potential that exists. However, there is need to go
beyond the middle and distance events and invest in long sprints such as the 400 m race
and the 4 ×440 m relay as Kenya won Olympic medals in these events in 1968, 1972 and
1992.
Fourth, Athletics Kenya and the Government instituted registration of all athletes at
all levels. This is critical as a number of young athletes had moved abroad without the
knowledge of Athletics Kenya and therefore the IAAF. For example, Stephen Cherono, who
pioneered the athletic defections to the Middle East with his move in 2003, does have his
name not featured on the IAAF list of athletes that changed allegiance between 1998 and
2005 (IAAF, 2010b). Although young athletes are still moving, there is a mechanism to
follow up with the governments of Qatar and Bahrain.
Conclusions
This article has explored the issue of Kenya’s dominance in middle and distance running,
sports labour migration, Kenya’s athlete exodus to Bahrain and Qatar, the consequences
for moving athletes and the implications for the movement at the individual and national
level for both the donor and the recipient countries. Although the migration was perceived
as a de-skilling (Thibault, 2009) of the talent pool, it appears that the crisis either precipi-
tated or coincided with a renewal of Kenya’s athletic scene. These positive developments
include structured incentives for international athletes, establishment of a database for ath-
letes by Athletics Kenya and the Government, diversification away from men to promote
women athletics and provision of dual citizenship in the constitution and investments by
the athletes thereby creating jobs. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether the receiving
countries, other than temporarily boosting their international image, accrue any long-term
structural sporting transformations.
Of greater concern are the consequences that befall migrant athletes. The cited exam-
ples of Kenyan athletes, Leonard Mucheru and Gregory Konchellah, who faced crises as
a result of change of citizenship, should be an eye opener to any potential migrant worker.
However, there is need for more studies on the personal and socio-cultural consequences of
this phenomenon of athlete labour migration. It is, therefore, necessary that more research
be done to establish the impact of migrating athletes on local sporting culture; their integra-
tion into society as well as the impact of the change in their names and religious orientation
on their value systems, individual identity and life in general.
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The performance of association football (soccer) teams from East Africa (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania [KUT]) in International competitions has not met the expectations of their followers and it has been consistently poor in comparison to Northern, Southern and Western regions of Africa. This article reviews some of the factors perceived to influence football development in East Africa focusing on KUT. Using performance factors conceptual framework, this paper highlights organizational factors, which have influenced the development of football such as facilities, equipment, funding, technical personnel, incentives, external exposure, and appointment of coaches in the development of football in East Africa. It is apparent that a lot more is demanded for the leadership of soccer in East Africa if the standards of the game are to be uplifted.
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The football World Cup tournament represents the pinnacle of the game globally. It is the dream of a player not only to take part in the World Cup final tournament but also to win it and be crowned as a world champion. Association football (soccer) is one of the most popular sports, with more than 270 million players worldwide and 209 national associations affiliated to Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) (FIFA, 2012). The highest point on the calendar is the international competition in which all countries throughout the world can participate — the FIFA World Cup, an international football competition contested by the men’s national football teams of the member nations of FIFA, the global governing body of football. This championship has been held every four years since the first tournament in 1930, with the exception of 1942 and1946, due to World War II (Wong, 2008).
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Kenya has distinguished itself as a powerful sporting nation over the years which has in turn helped to project a positive image for the country in the global arena (Gachie, 2014). The athletic accomplishments of middle- and long-distance runners from Kenya are virtually known and talked about around the world. Thus, sports has contributed immensely toward enhancement of the growth, development, and general quality of life of Kenyan youth as well as the country’s international image. However, there is need for diversification, for developing a variety of disciplines that can earn more medals in continental and global competitions. Currently, medals are being earned mainly from middle- and long-distance running. Sports and recreation in general are meaningful leisure outlets for people, not only in Kenya but across the globe. The history of sports in Kenya dates back to the precolonial period. The people of Kenya were actively involved in traditional sports such as dancing, wrestling, hunting, traditional archery, and other sports that were mainly confined within the various indigenous communities (Mählmann, 1988; Mazrui, 1986; Njororai, 2009; 2010; 2012). After colonization by the British, new sports such as golf, tennis, cricket, horse racing, and polo were introduced exclusively for the European settlers, while soccer, boxing, and athletics (i.e., track and field) were for the indigenous people (Mählmann, 1988; Manners, 1997; Mazrui, 1986; Njororai, 2010; 2012; Stuart, 1993; Tulloh, 1982).
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Sport is a major sociocultural phenomenon in Kenya, and in the world as a whole. It plays a key role in shaping the collective identities of nations and societies in the modern era. Sociologists have since the 1950s and 1960s established that sport is vital in maintaining stability in society. From this perspective, modern sport is a mechanism for the integration of social categories within one national entity. Various theories have been used to justify and contextualize the national and economic aspects of modern sports. These theories on the socioeconomic significance of sport in society stimulated extensive discussion on sport as a cultural field, subject to control and power relations. Some of the theories that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s were the feminist theories in sport that created an awareness that sport is a central cultural institution, directly related to gender identity and male hegemony (Burke, 2010; Coakley, 2009; Cooky et al., 2013; Knijnik, 2013; Perets et al., 2011; Wadesango et al., 2010). The feminist theories argue that sport creates and recreates ideological support of the superiority of men over women, and glorifies women in fields perceived as contrary to their biological “nature” (Burke, 2010; Mean, 2001). This ideology, which is deeply associated with the evolution of sport, draws its justifications from assumptions that attribute fragility and physical and mental weakness to women, thereby assuming that the female body is unable to attain physical feats in athletics compared to men (Burke, 2010; Sabo, 1993).
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A look at the medal podium in almost any international sporting competition reveals that some athletes and certain countries enjoy regular success in particular events. One of the most compelling examples is that of East African runners and their domination of international distance running competition. This phenomenon has led to the suggestion that East Africans possess some inherent genetic advantage predisposing them to superior athletic performances. The concurrent success of athletes of West African ancestry in sprint events appears to have augmented this belief given their similar skin colour. Despite the speculation that African athletes have a genetic advantage, there is no genetic evidence to date to suggest that this is the case, although research is at an early stage. The only available genetic studies of African athletes do not find that these athletes possess a unique genetic makeup; rather they serve to highlight the high degree of genetic diversity in East Africa and also among elite East African athletes. Although genetic contributions to the phenomenal success of East Africans in distance running cannot be excluded, results to date predominantly implicate environmental factors.
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Africa is the source of one of the great mysteries in the sports sciences. Why is it that sprinting and jumping events are dominated by African-Americans whose genetic origins are from the west coast of Africa, whereas East Africans, especially Kalenjin-speaking Kenyans from the Rift Valley province, bestride the distance running events? This article reveals the opportunity that this mystery offers for African scientists.
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The purpose of the 2008 Earle F. Zeigler Lecture was to highlight some of the issues in the globalization of sport that affect the field of sport management.particular, four issues were presented: a division of labor undertaken on an scale where transnational corporations are drawing on developing ' work forces to manufacture sportswear and sport equipment; the increasing of athletes where country of birth and origin are no longer a limitation on an athlete plays and competes; the increased involvement of global media in sport; and the impact of sport on the environment. The impact and inconvenient truths of these issues on sport management were addressed.
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The historical debate on the relative influences of genes (i.e. nature) and environment (i.e. nurture) on human behaviour has been characterised by extreme positions leading to reductionist and polemic conclusions. Our analysis of research on sport and exercise behaviours shows that currently there is little support for either biologically or environmentally deterministic perspectives on elite athletic performance. In sports medicine, recent molecular biological advances in genomic studies have been over-interpreted, leading to a questionable ‘single-gene-as-magic-bullet’ philosophy adopted by some practitioners. Similarly, although extensive involvement in training and practice is needed at elite levels, it has become apparent that the acquisition of expertise is not merely about amassing a requisite number of practice hours. Although an interactionist perspective has been mooted over the years, a powerful explanatory framework has been lacking. In this article, we propose how the complementary nature of degenerate neurobiological systems might provide the theoretical basis for explaining the interactive influence of genetic and environmental constraints on elite athletic performance. We argue that, due to inherent human degeneracy, there are many different trajectories to achieving elite athletic performance. While the greatest training responses may be theoretically associated with the most favourable genotypes being exposed to highly specialised training environments, this is a rare and complex outcome. The concept of degeneracy provides us with a basis for understanding why each of the major interacting constraints might act in a compensatory manner on the acquisition of elite athletic performance.