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Sports

Blocking the sport's drain

media Ruky Abdulai in the women's heptathlon at the Canadian Track and Field … Reuters/Todd Korol

People talk of a braindrain from the less developed countries to the richer nations of the world. But what of the sports drain which entices poor athletes towards richer track and field countries?

The debate has been raging for decades over athletes who decide to switch nationalities, usually for financial reasons.

The most controversial examples feature top Kenyan athletes like Saif Saaeed Shaheen, who accepted a lifelong salary and bonuses to run for Qatar. He used to be called Stephen Cherono.

Other runners are understandably attracted to the fabulous facilities and professional coaching offered on the university circuit in the United States, administered by the NCAA.

Not all runners choose the US to further their sporting career, however. Several western nations have their quota of world-class athletes representing them who have left their impoverished countries to give themselves a better chance against the homegrown runners.

Jaysuma Saidy Ndure decided to leave his native Gambia after winning everything there was to win on the African continent. That was five years ago, and the sprinter is still torn by his allegiances.

But he was outraged when the Gambian federation refused to pay for his coach to accompany the champion to athletic meetings.

Underlying Saidy’s comments is the accusation that money destined to bringing along the athlete's coaches is siphoned off towards officials who have no business being at meetings.

This appears to be an endemic problem, and several athletes we spoke to called it barely disguised corruption.

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But some make choices that surprise observers. Seun Adugan decided to represent the country of her parents, despite being given the opportunity to run for the United States.

The sprinter took gold at the 100 metres women's hurdles in the All Africa Games in September to help Team Nigeria dominate the sprint disciplines. The Chicago-born runner says she is proud of the choice she has made.

“The fellow-athletes in Nigeria have greeted me with open arms,” she said shortly after her heat at the September world championships. “It’s wonderful to put on the green jersey of my parents’ homeland.”

There are also obvious family reasons that also motivate the decision on who to run for.

Ruky Abdulai is a Canadian heptathlon champion who left her native Ghana at 13 to follow her family, first to the Netherlands and then to Canada.

After 13 years in Calgary, she feels no pull to represent the West African state. But she does feel others have a responsibility to stay put.

The IAAF body governing track and field has been scratching its head on ways to tighten procedures for athletes to switch nationalities to compete for other countries.

A few years ago it approved a three-year waiting period, and almost made it six years.

But scouts are overcoming this law by turning to younger stars of tomorrow. They track the world youth champions and entice them to richer nations.

So, this problem is likely to haunt those like former president of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria, Tony Urhobo, for a long time.

He recently sounded the alarm against what he called a haemorrhage of sporting talent leaving Nigeria for Spanish euros or American dollars.

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