Kalani Simpson

Kenya isn’t into export
of runners

IT'S a problem as old as athletics itself, a constant theme through the years. When it comes to this topic there's been little new under the sun. Why, at Hawaii, we've just seen, a few months ago, June Jones upset over Kahuku kids making their way out of town. And in 1953, UH coach Hank Vasconcellos found himself mournfully joking about local star Henry George's decision to go play for Bear Bryant at Kentucky instead of staying with the Rainbows at home.

"I guess I have to start bringing in mainland players," Vasconcellos told the questioning mob at the Honolulu Quarterback Club.

That's the way it's always been. Local hero gets away. Home team restocks talent by recruiting a few ringers from out of state.

Well, Kenya has had enough of that.

Anyone who knows anything about distance running knows that Kenya is the cradle, a seemingly endless source of big-lunged, bigger-hearted champions. Here, in Honolulu, we just watched Kenyan Jimmy Muindi run to his record fourth Honolulu Marathon win. With it, he broke the tie with countryman Mbarak Hussein, who had also won three times here.

A proud heritage.

And Kenya has decided to make a stand against letting any of that talent slip away.

Earlier this week, track's world governing body, the International Association of Athletics Federations, proposed that any athletes who switch countries -- change their citizenship -- will have to sit out three years before suiting up for their new team. The measure passed through an IAAF committee, but it's still awaiting final approval.

The waiting time before joining a new team could be reduced to as little as a year if everyone signs off on it -- kind of like when college coaches grant a would-be transfer a release.

But Kenya is having none of that.

A Wednesday story in The Standard reported that Kenya Minister for Sports, Ochillo Ayacko, is telling any Kenyan athlete who has gotten out to stay out.

"Once you have decided to sell your nationality, you have no business sitting here" was the quote.

Ayacko used the phrase "persona non grata," according to the Kenya Times. Even deportation is not out of the question, and they are making a "defectors" list as we speak.

At first glance this seems ominous for Hussein, who ran third in December, his first Honolulu Marathon as a (quiet) American. He became a U.S. citizen in the fall, but didn't say anything, only revealing in the new year that he'd actually been the fastest American finisher in the race's history.

Another Kenyan runner now on another team.

Hussein was traveling yesterday, and wasn't able to be reached. But Muindi's agent, Zane Branson, said the new development in the old country isn't necessarily aimed at Hussein and shouldn't hurt him. Hussein has lived in the U.S. for years and years and years and is now wealthy enough to take a trip home to visit any time he wants.

And besides, his brother, Kenya (and Honolulu Marathon) running legend Ibrahim, is on the Athletics Kenya board.

No, the problem, once again -- and Branson says this is a hot topic among Kenyan runners he's talked to -- is recruiting. Young Kenyans are being basically hired to run for the national teams of a few Gulf countries. Qatar. Bahrain. Of course, the catch is, you have to change your citizenship in order to do that.

Now, I think we all realize that the Pittsburgh Steelers don't all come from Pittsburgh. And nobody had a problem that Nick Rolovich was a California kid. But this is the national team. Doesn't that mean a little more?

Shouldn't it mean a little more?

That's what Kenya is saying.

But the other problem. There are, as Branson points out, nine spots on the Kenya cross country team and 900 guys who want to run.

"You can be a good Kenyan," he said. "World-class, and still not be able to feed your family."

Again, most of these guys are young. They need the money, they want to run. To them, they are the Pittsburgh Steelers. They're pro athletes, they've been drafted by a team in another city, but they go home in the offseason.

"They gave up their Kenyan passport for a green passport, but nothing else has changed," Branson said. In their minds, they're still Kenyans without a local ID.

Forget it, the Kenyan government says. In or out. And it seems a bunch of them are about to be locked out.

It makes Muindi, a proud Kenyan who still makes his home in Africa despite a globe-trotting career, sad. "He thinks that many of them are going to regret that they are no longer Kenyan," Branson said.

Hussein should be fine. Muindi didn't begrudge his friend's decision. Hussein is going to spend the rest of his life here in America.

But it seems a lot of these young guys could become examples. Kenya has finally solved this age-old question of sealing the borders and keeping the homegrown talent from heading out of state.

It would be as if local football recruits who had signed with Utah and Oregon State wouldn't be allowed to come home.

Which makes you wonder if Kenya's Minister for Sports hasn't been reading a certain Internet message board.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Kalani Simpson can be reached at ksimpson@starbulletin.com

E-mail to Sports Desk


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