Photo credit: Tullio M. Puglia/Getty

Kenya-born Yasemin Can and Meryem Akda, competing for Turkey, won gold and silver respectively at the 2016 European Cross Country Championships in November. The Irish Independent wrote that Ireland’s Fionnuala McCormack, who finished fifth, was “denied” a medal by the naturalized Turks, and Irish running icon Sonia O’Sullivan blasted the IAAF’s nationality transference rules, saying, “It’s a shame really that there are Kenyans so easily allowed to represent European countries because it takes away from the race. I don’t think they are legitimately running for the country. They haven’t grown up there. There is no connection there. They are basically being paid to run for Turkey.”

Kenya-born Ruth Jebet won the 3000 meter steeplechase in Rio, while wearing the uniform of Bahrain. The then-19-year-old Jebet said she opted to run for Bahrain three years prior because in Kenya, “there was no support,” and she couldn’t afford school fees. Bahrain promised a fully paid scholarship to study animal health and to support her training in Kenya, as Bahrain’s climate isn’t suitable for distance running (nor are the Muslim country’s cultural restrictions on women). Jebet received about a half-million dollars from Bahrain for her gold medal; Kenyan superstar David Rudisha received less than $10,000 for his.

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Aside from the enormous economic benefit of competing for Bahrain, Jebet mentioned the intense competition for limited team spots in her native country. “Maybe if I was in Kenya I would not be able to come to the Olympics because many athletes are there,” she said, while adding that she had no regrets about running for Bahrain. “I’m happy. I’m Bahraini and I’m proud of it.”

Though the osmotic flow of African runners from super-saturated countries like Kenya and Ethiopia to countries with lower concentrations of elite runners—and significantly richer budgets—has been going on since at least the mid-1990s, the International Association of Athletics Federations announced earlier this month that it was suspending all applications for transfer of allegiance, specifically to stop the flow of African athletes to other countries. IAAF President Sebastien Coe said the system was “no longer fit for purpose.”

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Hamad Kalkaba Malboum, the president of the Confederation of African Athletics and head of the IAAF work group that will draft new nation-switching rules, said he wanted to end the practice of countries more or less buying athletes, “without giving them full lifelong nationality.”

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“While the letter of the law was being followed in the transfer process,” Malboum responded via email, “the spirit was not, as the rules were open to exploitation. Some athletes believe they are being offered great opportunities only to find the agreed citizenship turns out to be temporary.” Asked for an example of an athlete who had been duped, as I have heard no complaints about the system from athletes, Malboum responded: “It’s not our intention at this stage to single out individuals.”

Malboum claimed that the current situation amounted to “a wholesale market for African talent open to the highest bidder.” But while some top Kenyan athletes like David Rudisha decried the exodus of talent, a wholesale market for their talent open to the highest bidder is exactly the situation many African athletes desire.

Athletics Kenya has complained that, because of national switching, they’d lost out on medals at the Rio Olympics. But as part of IAAF’s rules, Kenya must sign off on all of those national allegiance swaps they’re complaining about, and have willingly done so. Furthermore, laughably corrupt Athletics Kenya does not make a strong case for national loyalty, as officials from the Kenyan Olympic Committee stole Olympic athletes’ gear and sold it for profit.

Aside from stopping the exploitation of African athletes—which, again, no African athlete has publicly complained about—Malboum said the reason for the IAAF’s tightening of the rules is that nation-switching “damages the credibility, integrity, and dignity of the sport.” The IAAF’s alleged complicity in bribery and blackmail over state-sponsored Russian doping seems at least as damaging to the sport’s credibility and dignity, but fixing an external problem always seems a lot easier. And urged by the outcry of Europeans like O’Sullivan, this problem looks like low-hanging fruit.

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Malboum heads a work group set up to devise new, presumably stricter, rules around transferring national eligibility. In the delightfully twisted words of the IAAF, this is just part of the rule governing that transfer:

In international Competitions held under Rules 1.1(a), (b), (c), (f) or (g), Members shall be represented only by athletes who are Citizens of the Country (or territory) which the affiliated Member represents and who comply with the eligibility requirements of this Rule 5.2. An athlete who has never competed in an international Competition under Rules 1.1(a), (b), (c), (f) or (g) shall be eligible to represent a Member in an international Competition under Rules 1.1(a), (b), (c), (f) or (g) if he is:

(a) a Citizen of the Country (or territory) by virtue of having been born or by virtue of having a parent or grandparent born in the Country (or territory); or

(b) a Citizen of the Country (or territory) through the acquisition of a new Citizenship but, in such a case, he may represent his new Member no earlier than one year following the date of acquisition of new Citizenship pursuant to the athlete’s application. This period of one year may be reduced or cancelled as set out below:

(i) the period shall be cancelled if the athlete has completed one continuous year of Residence in the Country (or territory) immediately preceding the international Competition in question;

(ii) the period may be reduced or cancelled in exceptional cases by the Council. An application for a reduction or cancellation must be submitted by the relevant Member in writing to the iAAF Office at least 30 days before the international Competition in question.

After reading the rules many times, I think, but am not sure, that if an athlete has not competed in an IAAF championship event like European Cross Country or the Olympics, she has to either sit out a year or prove she’s already resided in the new country for a year. Or maybe, she can get that year waiting period waived. If the athlete has previously represented, say, Kenya, in international competition, then she needs to sit out of competition for three years before competing for a different country, unless she has lived in the new country for three years already. Or the IAAF Council can, at its discretion, reduce that waiting period to 12 months. Or, the IAAF Council can, at its discretion, cancel that waiting period completely.

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Those rules only apply to IAAF sanctioned international events like the World Championships. Freshly minted Qataris, for example, can compete in road races and non-IAAF track meets immediately. In any event, the athlete, the native country, the adopted country, and the IAAF are all involved in the transfer, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to any party, and it hasn’t.

Ultimately, this issue comes down to a debate over the definition of athletics. Is it a national sport in which all runners are assigned to a team by accident of birth, or is it an individual sport of free agents in which athletes attempt to maximize their potential by being mobile, by joining the team that offers the most beneficial contract?

Track and field has struggled to move beyond its origin as a sport of amateurs, to a professional structure in which athletes can make a living from their talent. A vestige of this puritanic amateur ideal is discomfort with upstart countries like Turkey or Bahrain essentially buying a runner. Of course, it’s common practice for a city or a country to “buy” a soccer or basketball player, but those players are not required to swap passports, and they play on a team with native born citizens. But there are few sports contested as widely around the world as track, and few sports so dominated by athletes from a select few countries—Kenya and Ethiopia in distance events, Jamaica in sprints.

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Malboum was clear in his belief that tightening the rules won’t curtail African athletes’ ability to earn money. “No one is being denied the right to make a living,” he said via email. “Outside major championships [that are organized by country] there is no restriction on the number of athletes from any country who, if they have the talent, can compete and earn a living in the various lucrative invitational circuits such as Diamond League and World Marathon Majors.”

Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey are typically mentioned as the most aggressive African recruiters, but IAAF records show that within the last five years, the U.S. has received 23 Kenyan and Ethiopian transfers, second only to Bahrain’s 35 athletes from those countries. It hasn’t gone unnoticed in the U.S. running community that with each Olympic cycle, a greater number of the American track and field team is made up of Africa-born athletes, particularly in the distance events. Unlike Gulf state citizens, though, the naturalized U.S. athletes live and train in this country, and have achieved full, lifelong citizenship through long residency or military service.

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The Nairobi News highlighted the motivations of and conflicts faced by Kenyan athletes, and the mixed feelings of the Kenyan public. One of the most compelling reasons to compete for another nation is to get out from under Athletics Kenya, a poorly run and woefully corrupt organization. Some Kenyans seemed to understand that and the economic motivations, while others clearly believe that switching countries is a betrayal of Kenya.

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Paul Mutwii, senior vice chairman of Athletics Kenya, took a more pragmatic view of Ruth Jebet’s passport change: “These athletes are just Bahraini by name but for all practical purposes are Kenyans. They live and train with us and win big bucks out there to come and invest in Kenya.” Investing foreign income in Kenya is particularly true of runners who become citizens of Gulf states, because they typically remain in Kenya to train. Jebet, for example, is paying for her siblings’ schooling, has built her father a house, and bought cows and some land in Kenya with her Bahraini income.

A textbook example of exported talent coming home to benefit Kenya is Lornah Kiplagat. Born and raised in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Kiplagat won a shelf-full of medals wearing Kenyan colors. In her travels, she met and married Dutchman Pieter Langerhorst, and moved with him to the Netherlands in 1999. She subsequently ran in three Olympics, and earned numerous cross country and road racing titles wearing the orange vest of the Netherlands. But Kiplagat brought her considerable earnings back to Kenya and established the High Altitude Training Center, a world-class facility that draws international athletes, and their dollars, to Iten, Kenya.

The original purpose of the IAAF’s national allegiance rules was to accommodate an ever-more fluid world population. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the IAAF—reflecting growing anti-immigrant sentiment in both Europe and the United States—is suddenly looking to tighten its rules, and shore up national borders.