Growing up in the cool, thin air of the Kenyan highlands helped turn Stephen Cherono into a world-class runner. He honed his skills jumping over rocks and streams in his native land, following the tracks of his older brother, Abraham, and a phalanx of other Kenyan champions. At last week's World Championships in Athletics in Paris, he not only beat his brother in a thrilling 3,000-m steeplechase; he also scored a gold medal for his home country: Qatar.
Qatar? That's right. Last month the lithe 20-year-old middle-distance man swapped his Kenyan passport for a Qatari one and took a new name, Saif Saaeed Shaheen. At the time, the sudden ID change, and a reported salary agreement of $1,000 a month for the rest of Shaheen's life, raised eyebrows in the sporting community. But Shaheen's victory for Qatar last week which caused Kenya to lose an event it had won at each of the last six World Championships and every Olympic Games it attended since 1968 raised full-scale alarms about the buying of athletes. Would teams from poorer countries now face regular poaching by rich ones? Should athletes be able to change flags as easily as, well, track shoes? Grumblings that Cherono had sold out were encouraged when his own brother failed to congratulate him after they crossed the finish line.
The International Association of Athletics Federations which organizes the World Championships joined in the consternation. "One week you're Kenyan, a week later you're Qatari, you change your name, and very clearly for financial reasons this is what we call morally weird," I.A.A.F. general secretary Istvan Gyulai tells TIME. He says there have been around 60 requests for "transfer of allegiance" in the last two years alone. Even some transnationals think enough is enough. Says the formerly Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey, who fell out with the Jamaican track federation and ran her first World Championships race for Slovenia in Paris: "If athletes are doing it just for the money, I think they should tighten the rules." The I.A.A.F. promptly ordered a study to examine and perhaps stiffen relevant rules. Athletes are now required to wait three years before competing under a new flag unless the sporting federations in both countries agree to the transfer which both Kenya and Qatar did in which case the delay drops to one year.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]The Qataris are unrepentant. "We're not pioneers on this; we followed the I.A.A.F. rules," says Dahlan Al-Hamad, president of the Qatar Athletic Federation. Though their athletes have been integrated for longer, host France's team includes many foreign-born and naturalized stars, such as long-jump gold medalist Eunice Barber, who came to France after a French diplomat spotted her in her native Sierra Leone. Moroccan-born marathoner Khalid Khannouchi, granted American citizenship in 2000, became the world-record holder two years later.
But the track and field apparatus Qatar has gathered as it prepares to host the 2006 Asian Games is a true mixed relay: it includes formerly Kenyan 10,000-m runner Albert Chepkurui, A.K.A. Abdullah Ahmad Hassan, and its training staff led by a Belgian ex-decathlon competitor also boasts a Russian, a Czech and a Hungarian. Why didn't Kenya block Shaheen from racing for Qatar the way it stopped 800-m champion Wilson Kipketer running for Denmark at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics? There has been wide speculation that Kenyan track authorities were promised payment or a new track facility by their Qatari counterparts. Both federations have denied such allegations, but Al-Hamad does not exclude the possibility that an agreement could have been brokered at a higher level of government.
Shaheen tells TIME that he simply wanted to get away from Kenya and make a more secure life. When he approached the Qataris in 2001, he says, "I didn't expect to be running the way I am now. I wanted to make sure I'd have a job in a few years, and that if I had injuries, I'd be taken care of." He doesn't speak Arabic, is not Muslim, still trains with his Kenyan coach and lives in Kenya and London. But he is happy to run for Qatar and says he plans to make a home there: "They have made me feel very welcome." He believes many Kenyans, who earn less than $400 a year on average, understand his decision. Eventually, maybe his brother will, too.