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Kenya's President Urges Athletes to Stay

Kenya is home to some of the world's best long-distance runners. But many of the country's top athletes are defecting to nations where their talents are better rewarded. Now, Kenya's president has stepped in to stop the drain of athletes.

Of the top-10 marathon runners in the world, five are Kenyan. Kenya consistently ranks high in international track and field events, but the East African nation is losing many of its star athletes.

About 40 Kenyan runners have defected to greener pastures abroad, mainly to oil-rich Gulf countries like Qatar and Bahrain, where many of them have been given citizenship, a life-long salary and generous perks. In some cases, Kenyan athletes have even been given new names to help them blend in better in their new home country.

The drain of athletic talent is stirring debate in Kenya's parliament, where some ministers are considering a plan to retain their athletes.

President Mwai Kibaki met with Kenya's top athletes on Tuesday before they left for the world championships in Helsinki, Finland.

"Let us resist the temptation to change our citizenship for financial gains," the president told them, reminding them that Kenya is where their talent was nurtured and should remain.

It is a message likely to be lost on many of the athletes, especially as they hear about compatriots abroad raking in tens of thousands of dollars a year, at the very least, and training in sparkling, high-tech facilities.

Moses Kiptanui is a Kenyan athlete who, until 2003, held the world record in the 3,000 meter steeplechase. He says there are reasons for many athletes to put money over national pride.

"I have won more than five medals, but I have got zero from the government," he said. "Nobody knows who I am or what I did. The only [people] who know what I have done is my family. When an athlete retires he is forgotten for good. We have seen a lot of athletes who were running in the 1968 Olympics or 1974 until maybe last year, some of them, they are living in a very, very sparse state. They are very poor despite the fact they have done great things for this country," he explained.

The lure of money is strong in a country were more than half the population is unemployed, and even those who do work often make less than $5 a day.

In a telephone interview from Helsinki, the chairman of Kenya's Amateur Athletics Association, Isaya Kiplagat, acknowledged that other countries are able to offer athletes more than Kenya is able to.

"One thing you must understand is that poverty in Africa is quite an issue," he said. "A lot of athletes come from a background that can only be said to be really poor. So much so that any amount of money that is given to them will lure them to do anything, I mean, to go anywhere. I think this is the biggest problem at the moment."

An incident at the 2003 World Championships in Paris, France, brought the issue into sharp focus. Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar, who was 20-years old at the time, won the 3,000 meter steeplechase, breaking Kiptanui's record. As Shaheen wrapped himself in Qatar's national flag to run his victory lap, Kenyans cringed. It turns out, Saif Saaeed Shaheen was really Stephen Cherono, a Kenyan athlete who, less than a month earlier, had changed his name and his citizenship to compete for Qatar.

Kenya's then sports minister, Najib Balala, tried to pass a law prohibiting Kenyan athletes from changing their citizenship. He lost that battle. He says Kenya needs to nurture its pool young talent long before they are lured away by sports managers from abroad.

"We only tap them after they reach the national champions," he explained. "And then we realize, Wow, we have this kid. And then we try to hang around them, but they also become very clever and they get agents and managers. And they [the agents and managers] take them overseas."

It is not just a Kenyan problem. Athletes across Africa and in other developing regions of the world have been lured from their homelands to compete for richer nations. It is similar to the brain drain that many say hampers development on the world's poorest continent.

For now, Kenyan sports associations are working with the government to find ways to nurture young talent. As far as top runners are concerned, Kenya has shown that it can produce champions. The challenge now is keeping them.