Nation-hopping dopers

 I believe that there is a correlation between athletes who switch nationality and athletes who dope. Clearly not all athletes who change nationalities also take performance enhancing drugs, but consider this long list of world class athletes who have both switched nationality and served a ban for anti-doping rule violations:

Name Nationalities Accolades
Elvan Abeylegesse Ethiopia to Turkey 2 x Olympic silver medalist, former 5000m WR holder
Alemayehu Bezabeh Ethiopia to Spain 2 x Euro XC champ, sub 12:57 5000m PB
Abeba Aregawi Ethiopia to Sweden World indoor + outdoor champ, European champ, 3:56 1500m PB, 3 x Swedish records
Rashid Ramzi Morocco to Bahrain Olympic champ, 2 x world champ, Asian games champ, sub 3:29 1500m PB
Femi Ogonude Nigeria to Qatar World indoors bronze, Asian champ, 4 x Asian games champ, Asian record holder 100m (9.91) and 200m (9.97)
Hind Dehiba Morocco to France Continental Cup champ, World indoor bronze, European outdoor silver, European indoor bronze, French 1500m record (3:59.76)
Hamza Driouch Morocco to Qatar World junior champ, Asian junior champ
Mohammed Mourhit Morocco to Belgium 2 x World XC champ, World indoor + outdoor medalist, European record holder 3000m (7:26) + 5000m (12:49)
Eddy Hellebuyck Belgium to USA Winner of 21 international marathons, USA masters Marathon record.
James Theuri Kenya to France 60:54 HM, 2:10:39 Marathon
Mark Jelks USA to Nigeria 6.51 60m, 9.99 100m, 20.28 200m
Mark McKoy Canada to Austria Olympic 110h champ, World indoor champ, 3 x Commonwealth champ
Mo Trafeh Morocco to USA 8 x USA road champion, USA 25km record holder

There are not a huge number of world class athletes who have switched nationality; neither are there a huge number of world class athletes who have served doping bans. So the length of the above list is quite shocking to me, and I don’t believe it to be coincidental.

The athlete who inspired last week’s blog, Abeba Aregawi, is the prefect case in point here. Aregawi was initially accused of entering a sham marriage with husband Henok Weldegebriel, whom she divorced shortly afterwards, in order to gain Swedish citizenship. Then just two days prior to the news of her positive test, Sports Expressen cited documents from the tax authorities revealing that Aregawi admitted to submitting false information to Immigration Services when applying for citizenship. She also admitted to never having been a resident in Sweden.

The athletic benefits to Aregawi of representing Sweden include effectively allowing her automatic qualification into every major championship, provided that she achieves the relatively modest qualification standard. In Ethiopia, the qualification procedure is much more rigorous as she would have to compete with World record holder Genzebe Dibaba, world champs 4th placer Dawit Seyaum and world junior record holder Gudaf Tsegay, amongst many others, for a spot on the Ethiopian national team.  It appears as though Aregawi sought out a short cut to success, both by switching nationality and by using meldonium.

Many athletes switch nationality for monetary reasons.  The most famous example of this may be Stephen Cherono of Kenya, who by some reports received $1 million for switching his nationality to represent Qatar and changing his name to Saif Saeed Shaheen. Other reports claim that he was promised $1000/month for the rest of his life. Rumours of Kenyan athletics officials also accepting bribes from the Gulf States in exchange for enabling the transfers to go smoothly have long been rife.

These rumours gained traction recently after 3 Kenyan officials were suspended. The deal for which they are being investigated reportedly involved Isaiah Kiplagat, president of Athletics Kenya, accepting an “apparent gift” of two motor vehicles from the Qatar Association of Athletics Federations in the period from 2014 to 2015. Even in this instance, switching of nations and doping appear to be inexorably linked, as the allegations against the three officials also extend to ‘potential subversion of anti-doping process’.

There are several possible reasons for the observed correlation. Athletes who switch nations for financial gain appear to be more likely to take performance enhancing drugs, which can also lead to financial rewards e.g. increased prize money. The motives behind the two decisions are not dissimilar and both may have a basis in a desire to earn more money.

The more traditional motivations for competing in high level sport include pride at representing your home nation and striving towards your own absolute athletic potential; neither of these goals come with any inherent financial reward. When the primary motivation is money instead, the likelihood of doping appears to increase.

Doping is the scourge of modern sport and the subject of most of my writing. But the situation with athletes representing countries with which they have no genuine association is also becoming somewhat farcical. At the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, 14 of the 22 individual running events were won by athletes of African origin who had switched nationality, either to Qatar, Bahrain or United Arab Emirates.

There is no easy solution to either the doping problem or the issue of athletes switching nationality on nefarious grounds. Immigration is a natural modern phenomenon that has arisen out of the huge inequality between nations and the relative ease of international transport. There is no issue with genuine immigrants representing their adopted homeland. As a side note, I am actually a big believer in allowing more immigration – I don’t think it’s right that quality of life can be so dramatically affected by where you happen to be born, and I’m in favour of any measures that serve to lessen this inequality. But athletes that have no desire to live or train in the country, but still compete under the flag, simply in return for payment, is a very different issue, and one which is having a negative effect on the sport that I am most passionate about.

Quite aside from the doping issue, it is now the status quo that in every major championship, there will be multiple athletes from Kenya, Ethiopia and Morocco competing for other nations, most often Qatar or Bahrain, despite the fact that they usually continue to live and train in the countries of their births. There should be a good reason for every transfer of allegiance, and these reasons should be well documented. Albert Rop is a Kenyan-born athlete representing Bahrain. He has a 5000m personal best of 12:51 – faster than Mo Farah – but I cannot find any information as to why he represents Bahrain instead of Kenya. Does he have a Bahraini wife or grandmother, or did he move there years ago to make it his home, for the greater sporting facilities and opportunities? I doubt that any of these scenarios are true, as it is reported that he continues to train at the Kipchoge Keino stadium in Kapsabet, Kenya.

It is the stories behind the athletes that make track and field exciting, but all that we are told by the IAAF about Albert Rop, is that he applied for a transfer of allegiance some time in 2013 and became eligible to compete for Bahrain in international competitions on April 1st, 2014. What was it that made him eligible for this switch? Is he adored by fans in Bahrain? I doubt it. But neither does he bring national pride to Kenya, as he no longer wears their colours. And thus, yet more of the drama and passion drains away from the ailing sport of distance running.


N.B. After writing last week’s blog about Meldonium/Mildronate, Maria Sharapova admitted that she had tested positive for that substance. There was not a great deal of information out there about it, so my blog received quite a lot of traffic and I was invited to speak on the radio and television about it. Below is a link to the TV interview for anyone who is interested.



4 thoughts on “Nation-hopping dopers

  1. Top writing. A few months ago I wrote a shorter less eloquent letter to AW along broadly similar lines called ‘Doping Diaspora’ referring to the wretched doping record of one of the nations most prominent in your list. It wasn’t published

    • Thanks very much Dave! I’m sure your letter was actually much more eloquent, and I’m very disappointed the AW chose not to publish it. I don’t think they want to tackle the real issues.


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