The more talent we export the better for the economy.

By MICHAEL MUGWANG’A Hillary Bor, his brothers Julius Bor and Emmanuel Bor are Kenyans. They were born and raised in Eldoret. But the three are soldiers in the United States Army. They have vowed to live, fight and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, if that is what it takes, for the United States of America. The Bor brothers will kill and possibly die for America. Julius is currently fighting in Afghanistan, Emanuel is at the barracks at Fort Bliss, Texas. And Hillary has just returned to the States from Rio de Janeiro where he represented his country in the 3,000-meter steeplechase race. He finished eighth in the finals. Hillary was with three other Kenyan-born athletes; Leonard Korir, Shadrack Kipchirchir and Paul Chelimo in the American team in Rio, all in USA’s army. Korir and Chelimo are from Iten while Kipchirchir, just like the Bors, is from Eldoret. In Rio, they were all Americans. At the same festival were about five other Kenyan born athletes competing for Bahrain. Quartz Africa, an online publication reported, “ Bahrain’s Olympic track field team is almost entirely made up of athletes originally from Africa. Half of the men’s team hail from Nigeria, Ethiopia, or Kenya while almost all of the women’s team are from those same countries” Reports indicate that over 30 Kenyan born athletes competed at the just concluded Olympics for other countries than their East African home. Africa produced more of these “export” athletes who entered the races for countries in other continents. Analysing this trend of countries importing sports talent to represent them in global competitions, Okay Africa, another online publication, described it as a scandal. “The 2016 Olympics begin this week in Rio amid an ongoing doping scandal that has resulted in many Russian athletes being banned from competition. But another scandal looms large—the practice of poaching African players to bolster otherwise anemic national teams around the globe.” Okay Africa wrote. And here is where I differ with many African-centric sports enthusiasts. As I argued in the Daily Nation edition of August 19, in a world where there seems to be more concentration of sports talent in one region than others, it is only fair that we level the stage so that as many with that talent as possible are allowed to exploit it. When Eliud Kipchoge, a ‘Kenyan-Kenyan’ won gold in the men’s marathon on the final day of the Olympics, The Sydney Morning Herald described the event thus: “It was the third straight time a Kenyan had claimed a spot on the Olympic podium, following silver and bronze performances in 2012 and a 2008 gold. Five of the top 10 finishes were from Africa and one of those non-Africans – from Switzerland – was born in Africa.” The non-African was Eritrea-born Swiss long distance runner Tadesse Abraham. Though Kenya emerged with the best performances in her history at the Olympics, at position 15 overall and one in Africa, there seems to be a near unanimity among Kenyans following the games in Rio that Kenya deserved better than what she achieved. Many attributed the not-so-impressive show to the apparent mismanagement at the National Olympics Committee of Kenya (Nock) and the Athletics Association of Kenya (AAK), the two bodies mandated to manage affairs of the team before, during and after the competition in Rio. Others have been calling for the resignation of Sports Cabinet Secretary Hassan Wario for the mishaps that dogged Team Kenya since the time the preparation for the journey to Brazil began. They have their reasons, and good ones at that. But there is a narrative that seems to be very popular among another group of sports enthusiasts with an overblown sense of patriotism. And what worries me is that this group seems to have such a huge following that it may lose the most important needle in its stack of hay. When, for instance, Bahrain’s Ruth Jebet won 3,000m steeplechase gold medal in the competition and Hyvin Kiyeng the silver in the race, there was hue and cry at the bars (for that is where many go with an excuse of watching the games), and on social media in Kenya. The whiners, most wined, complained that ‘the former Kenyan’ Jebet had denied the country the gold and “it was left to Hyvin Kiyeng to save Kenya’s blushes”. I find such an argument shallow and superfluous. Granted, there is a lot to be desired in the management of sports in the country. Priorities are more often than not misplaced. Take the fact that there were more mistresses and concubines of the team’s officials in the Kenyan delegation to Rio than there were coaches and athletes for instance. The said mistresses and concubines had their welfare taken care of better than the athletes and their coaches. A team manager was even expelled from the event because he used someone else’s pass to access basic amenities at the Olympic village because his had not been processed. It can’t get worse. But connecting the chronic mismanagement of sports in the country with the reality that many of our compatriot sportsmen have changed their citizenship and are now playing for other countries is indeed naïve. If by any chance the two are interconnected, then maybe we should encourage the mismanagement. For it is a good thing to have as many of our compatriots playing for and getting paid by other countries. Reports indicate that there are more than 30 ‘former Kenyans’ competing at Rio for other countries than their home country. From Jebet and newly crowned Olympic marathon bronze holder Eunice Kirwa for Bahrain, Mike Kigen of Turkey, USA’s former world champion Bernard Lagat and marathoner Lonah Chemtai of Israel, Kenya is well represented on the world athletics stage. Jebet transferred her sports nationality to the tiny Gulf island kingdom three years ago, catching Athletics Kenya officials by surprise when she lined up at world junior championships in Eugene, USA in 2014 to run against her compatriots. “There are so many athletes in Kenya,” the 19-year-old Jebet said then, explaining her decision. “In Bahrain I get the chance to go to school.” For her efforts to win gold in Rio in the women 3,000m steeplechase, Jebet was paid Sh52 million by Bahrain. This is alongside the Oil-Rich state educating her and paying her monthly stipend in excess of $1,000 (Sh100, 000) monthly. Jebet, like her other athletes who have switched to Bahrain, will continue living in Kenya and only passes through Manama, Bahrain on transit to competition in Europe and USA. Contrary to the popular narrative that this is lack of patriotism or a protest move by the individual athletes against poor management in the country, it is actually a positive mood that well-meaning Kenyans should do everything within their power to encourage. Unlike other specialized skilled resources like medicine, teaching and engineering that we should endeavour to protect from brain drain, sportsmanship is different and should be, to use a now infamous word, exported to any other country willing to pay well. Kenyas’ sportsmanship and our talented sportspeople are assets from who we gain more when exported than when domesticated. Just as I wondered in the Daily Nation piece then, I still wonder now why it is, for instance, fashionable to celebrate Kenyan footballers playing for the big Western leagues and demonise athletes running for Bahrain or Qatar, or any other country for that matter. Let’s take a look at the “exported, unpatriotic” athletes at Rio. Don’t these ladies and gentlemen practically spend most of their time in Kenya? Actually, they spend most of the dollars they get paid for running for their adopted countries, in Kenya. All of them have their extended families, which they support financially, in Kenya. In fact, one originally Kenyan sports lady who is married to a foreigner and hence an adoptive foreigner, runs the most efficient sports training facility in the country. Lonah Chemtai is representing Israel because she got married to her trainer, Dan Salpeter, an Israelite. I can bet the two were on the first flight back to Kenya at the end of the Olympic festival, with their money in the wallet for spending in the country! As we continue deluding ourselves in the imagined patriotism over the performance of our brothers and sisters running on the passports of other countries, let’s also ask ourselves whether we would rather have them dropped out the world stage due to the country’s limited slots or have them dominate the competitions and bring the much needed foreign exchange back home, the stamp on their passports notwithstanding. In the run up to the Rio competitions, for instance, 417 Kenyan Kenyans clocked the requisite time for the Olympics marathons but only three could go to Brazil. With a single blow of the whistle, 414 potential medalists, 414 potential millionaires, were relegated to the periphery of the global dreams. In fact, just before heading to Rio, Olympic 800m champion David Rudisha spoke of the frustration the Kenyan Olympics management authorities go through when selecting the final team: “Sometime it is tough being a Kenyan athlete. While most other countries are struggling to find a single athlete to qualify for the Olympics, Kenya has over 5000 athletes who have run Olympic qualification times in 2016 alone,” Rudisha told Xinhua, an international Chinese publication. Xinhua reports it spoke to Rudisha just a week before the national trials. In the interview, Rudisha, who had cut off his training camp in Europe to return home in Eldoret for trials, noted that it is always hard to secure a chance to represent Kenya and everyone selected must hold it dear to his heart the honour to represent the country in any event, especially, the epitome of sports excellence, the Olympic Games. “It is not every day we get the chance to compete for Kenya. Case in point is the men’s marathon, where over 417 men have run Olympic qualification times (2:20:00) in the last six months, but only three can go. How do you select three athletes from a strong squad of 417?” Rudisha is reported to have posed. Five thousand qualified athletes against the limited slots is indeed an unfortunate situation for a country whose majority population is struggling to get out of poverty. If there is another country that has the dollars and opportunity to help tap and develop this excess talent, it is only reasonable that we encourage it to come to our aid. Let’s export more athletes as we struggle to put our sporting house in better order. Kenyans’ sportsmanship and our talented sportspeople are assets from who we gain more when exported than when domesticated.

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