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On Your Marks. Set. Go Home!
Why can't Kenyan Stephen Cherono race for Qatar in the Olympics?
By Dana Mulhauser
IN ATHENS AT THE END OF AUGUST, the world's fastest steeplechasers will line up in the starting blocks at Olympic Stadium. The 3,000-meter race is the closest thing the quadrennial games have to an obstacle course, with high hurdles, water jumps, and more bumps and bruises per stride than any other event in track.

But when the gun goes off, the best steeplechase runner in the world will not be part of the race. Stephen Cherono, the 2003 world champion, has come to a hurdle he can't jump over.

Last summer, Cherono moved from Kenya to the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, becoming another on the growing list of top-caliber amateur athletes who are switching citizenships in search of more money and better training facilities. The movement has been most noticeable in track, in which most of the top competitors are African and most of the top training facilities are not. Cherono—now identified on his Qatari passport as Saif Saaeed Shaheen—is joined in his new homeland by fellow former Kenyan Albert Chepkurui, a 5,000-meter runner who goes by the name Abdullah Ahma Hassan. Six other world-class Kenyan runners have changed nationalities since last August, with the other four going to Bahrain and the Netherlands.

The International Olympic Committee began to crack down hard on such moves about a year ago. An Olympic charter rule bars athletes such as Cherono from competing for one country during the three years after they have last competed for another. The only way around the rule is through a special waiver process requiring the approval of the new and old countries, the international track federation, and the IOC itself.

Previously, the IOC was deferential to waiver requests when both countries agreed. Yueling Chen, who in 1992 became the first Asian woman to win a gold medal in track, competed for the U.S. team in the 2000 Sydney games with Chinese and IOC approval. But now the IOC has made clear that it is reluctant to grant any waivers, certainly not when an athlete's prime motivation is financial. In the cases of Cherono and Chepkurui, the two runners managed to gain the approval of the track federation, of Qatar, and of Kenya (reportedly thanks to a healthy bribe from Qatar in the form of a sparkling new track facility). But the IOC blanched at approving the transfer, so the two athletes will have to watch the race from one of the few places hotter than Athens in August: Doha, Qatar.

"What is bad is countries or organizations wanting to buy athletes just for the money," said Jacques Rogge, the president of the IOC. "This is something that we should try to put into control."

Some observers attribute less pure motives to the IOC. Each four-year Olympic cycle is an enterprise worth $4 billion, little to none of which is paid directly to the athletes, and one of the IOC's major marketing tools is the idea that Olympic athletes are amateurs, competing for the love of sport. Despite changing the rules to allow professional athletes to compete at the Olympics in sports such as basketball, tennis, and track, the IOC continues to promote the soaring image of amateur competition. During the televised opening ceremonies, expected to be the television broadcast ratings highlight, all the athletes swear that they're competing "for the glory of sport and the honor of [their] teams." The major advertiser and financial services company John Hancock uses the Olympics' supposed purity as a promotional tool; it recently announced that it has "developed a tradition of powerful and moving Olympic advertising and promotional programmes [sic] that spread the Olympic messages of fair play, friendship, unity, and peace."

Country-swapping, which often includes a cash payout to the athletes from their new nations, hurts the IOC's image and thus its pocketbook. "The IOC is cracking down because it's money [being spent on] the Olympics that isn't going to them," said Roger Noll, a professor of economics at Stanford University. "If there's a penny that's escaping its grasp, it wants it."

The country-switching rules and the Olympic Charter itself are based on the premise that the Olympics are a competition between countries, and that athletes represent not just themselves, but their flags. If the IOC relaxed the nationality rules, "you'd see even more recruiting, and you'd see athletes from third world countries and others being lured away all the time," said Matthew J. Mitten, the director of the National Sports Law Institute and a law professor at Marquette University. For many, a Kenyan winning for Kenya is heartwarming TV, but a Kenyan winning for Qatar is coldblooded commercialism.

Yet despite the ratings-raising spectacles of big winners from small countries, there is little the IOC should do to keep athletes from following the money, according to Noll. "It's not like the world is going to come to an end if a few Kenyans who would otherwise be in poverty get rich," said Noll. "If oil-rich countries want to spend their money this way, it's hard to see why we should stop them." Many other international sports organizations, such as European soccer and basketball leagues, have eliminated requirements that all or most members be citizens of the host country.

Track has seen country-hopping before, but infrequently and for political rather than financial reasons. Zola Budd, for example, moved from South Africa to Britain in 1984 to get around the rules preventing apartheid-era South Africans from competing in the Olympics—a swap that became infamous when the barefooted Budd collided with American Mary Decker and knocked the heavy favorite for the gold medal out of the race.

Middle Eastern countries like Qatar and Bahrain are new to the game. A country whose biggest national sporting events include the Emir Camels Race and the Heir Apparent Handball Cup-Final, Qatar first tried to increase its international athletic profile in the 1990s through the importation of Bulgarian weight; lifters. At the Sydney games, Said Saif Asaad, once known as Angel Popov, took the bronze. Emboldened by its success, the oil-rich country has changed its focus to track stars, and to Kenyans. Bahrain has followed suit and recruited two Kenyan runners, Abel Cheruiyot and Leonard Mucheru. In these cases the International Association of Athletics Federations stepped in, striking the results of these athletes from the sport's official records and enforcing the three-year waiting period.

No matter what you think about the rules against country-hopping, they mean that the Olympic competition isn't as good as it could be. In 2003, eight of the world's nine top marathoners were Kenyan. In the Olympics, only three athletes can represent any country. If Kenya's five other superb marathoners were allowed to compete for different nations and race against each other, the event would really give its top participants—and viewers—a run for their money.