The Spring Issue of Middle East arts magazine, Bidoun, is about sports. This includes a piece on “Kenyan long- and middle-distance runners who have found infamy and fortune as Arabized athletes in the Gulf” on $1000 a month for the rest of their lives. This comes with the “standard complement of elite trainers and cutting edge facilities.” These athletes, mostly men from Kenya, do not actually reside in the Gulf states, according to the article, only flying back to have their residence permits and passports renewed. The article describes the case of Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar:
In 2003, relations [between Qatar and Kenyan athletic officials]nose-dived when Kenyan Olympic Committee president and former track star Kipchoge Keino barred a newly Qatari runner, 20-year-old Saif Saaeed Shaheen, from competing in the Athens games the next year.
Until that August, Shaheen had been Stephen Cherono. He was not well-known in Kenya, where there is such a surfeit of world-class runners that few qualify for the national team. Hardly anyone took notice when Cherono switched his citizenship and name in exchange for a lifetime monthly salary of $1,000 and the standard complement of elite trainers and cutting-edge facilities. But then he started winning races. In a surprise victory at the World Championships in Athletics, held in Paris that spring, Shaheen broke the world record for the 3,000-meter steeplechase. After crossing the finish line he fell to his knees and began to cross himself, but an official rushed to stop him; he then took a Qatari flag, wrapped it around his shoulders, and ran a victory lap; when he stepped up to the podium he forgot his new name and had to check the scoreboard. His brother, a runner on the Kenyan team, finished fifth in the same race, and refused to congratulate him.
This jarring scene was replayed on television in Kenya and elsewhere, and Shaheen, who had received a multimillion-dollar bonus for his victory, was condemned in his homeland’s newspapers. “That some Kenyan sportsmen are willing to be regarded in the same light as champion horse breeds and agree to sell their birth rights to the power of the dinar speaks ill of us Kenyans,” opined the Daily Nation. Kenya’s minister of sports attempted to pass a law prohibiting the country’s athletes from changing citizenship at all.
The president of Kenya’s athletics federation equated the practice to “trading slaves,” while others compared the exploitation of African athletes to colonialism. For his part, Shaheen returned to Doha, where the sheikhs bestowed upon him a mansion and a squad of servants, as well as a title: “The Falcon of Qatar.” And despite the general opprobrium back home, dozens of athletes, mostly runners and mostly Kenyan, have been Qatarized since Shaheen’s public shaming.
Read the full article here.