© Copyright – 2016 – Athletics Illustrated

The World Cross Country Championships are going to die a harsh death if intervention does not happen immediately.

Before the world championships die, the European cross country championships will go down first. It will be an ugly death spiral that perhaps we are already witnessing. When either or both are laid to rest, so goes the sport right down to the regional level, and perhaps deeper.


The sport currently does not have a global stage and an equitable solution would be to include it in the Winter Olympics, however, in the short term preventing false nationalities is an immediate problem that needs attention.

The issue is in Europe; ground zero of the event for many decades. Europeans are racing non-Europeans; imports from East Africa, plastic Europeans, as it were.

The fan base does not identify with the plastic Europeans and they are losing interest, fast. Something must be done immediately to stop the spiral.

Sonia O’Sullivan, the legendary Irish distance runner didn’t mince words recently when addressing the outcome of the 2016 European championships, where two Kenyans finished 1-2, while representing Turkey.

“I don’t think they are legitimately running for the country. They haven’t grown up there. There is no connection there. They are basically being paid to run for Turkey,” said O’Sullivan. “Whoever allowed that to happen in the IAAF are not brave enough to distinguish between cases where people have legitimate reasons for people moving countries.”

O’Sullivan is a two-time winner of the world championships and a four-time Olympian. During the 1998 edition she won the long distance race on the Saturday, followed by a win in the short distance race on the Sunday.

The problem for Europeans – and for the event itself – is that the East Africans treat running nationality like corporate sponsorship. Had the two Kenyans ever stepped foot into Turkey? It is questionable whether Turkey should be a European country as it is.

The European Union didn’t really want Turkey included from day one and former French President Valéry Giscard D’Estaing (’74 to ’81) was very clear in expressing his feelings about Turkey in 2002, “Turkey must never be a member of the European Union. It was not a matter of time, of Turkey’s adjusting to the political culture of Europe, of economic or legal harmonisation. To admit this huge Muslim, non-European state, would mean the end of the EU.”

“This (plastic Europeans) was something that was allowed to happen and was even facilitated by the old leadership at the IAAF. However now that the reforms were passed I hope, and believe, that this issue will be properly addressed and looked at.”

Sounds like a foreshadowing to cross-country’s death. Paula Radcliffe doesn’t like the current situation in athletics either.

Radcliffe told Athletics Illustrated, “I agree that something really needs to be done to tighten up the rules so people can no longer run for ‘flags of convenience’ or for money as this has major consequences and ill effects for our sport.”

Apparently cross-country, an event currently on its last legs, is being looked at by IAAF president Sebastian Coe. Coe has a big job ahead of him to resurrect the sport of athletics from the many scandals currently plaguing it including the massive, state-sponsored doping issue in Russia, corruption and extortion issues within the IAAF and other organisations. Cross-country needs high level support; perhaps a task force is required for the grand old event.

“This (plastic Europeans) was something that was allowed to happen and was even facilitated by the old leadership at the IAAF. However now that the reforms were passed I hope, and believe, that this issue will be properly addressed and looked at,” added Radcliffe.

In September the IAAF introduced, “Time for a Change”, a document that includes reforms to do with the structure of the IAAF and empowering national governing bodies, while ensuring stronger area representation.

When the suggestion was made that perhaps more athletes from each nation should be permitted to compete, Radcliffe wasn’t sure that was a solution. “I am not sure how that would help since the athletes are not particularly interested in just going to the championships, the lure is rather being paid handsomely by the new country to represent them and win honours. Increasing the numbers that can represent each country will further increase the effects of the African dominance – particularly in cross-country and may well sound the death knell for the World Championships.”

Radcliffe competed in at least eight world cross country championships finishing top-five six times with two gold medals and three silver medals. She is also the current marathon world record holder.

Something must be done and policing the athletes and their national association is likely the most effective way to combat the issue and the most obvious choice of action.

When asked his opinion, 1996 European champion and three-time Olympian Jon Brown said, “Yea – [it’s] not a great situation for European athletes, although arguably Turkey isn’t even part of Europe.”

The policing

“There needs to be a consensus on a number of conditions that need to be met that are outside of sport- continual residence, marriage to a national or proof of permanent ties to the country. Black and white rules really don’t cover this adequately as some countries are openly flouting the rules by making their citizenship requirements very easy to attain,” said Brown. “The EAA needs to assess each nationality and each case based on its own merits according to its own competition eligibility conditions regardless of someone having a European passport. A very strong message needs to be sent to rogue countries that they can’t hijack sport to promote their flag.”

Kenyan, Sally Kipyego lives in America. She attended Texas Tech University and earned a nursing degree, while still competing for Kenya internationally. She went on to win a silver medal during the 2012 London Olympics in the 10,000-metre event. Kipyego sees both sides of the problem, as she too could easily be considered a plastic American; however, she is going about the process in a legitimate way.

When asked about the situation, Kipyego struggled a little with an answer.

“I find this question challenging and I’m probably not the best person to give an objective opinion on the issue.

I’m an immigrant who lives and trains in the U.S. I also have every intention of applying for American citizenship at some point in my life. [I will apply] either while still competing or after my athletics career.”

From Kipyego’s perspective, she knows well the struggles that her fellow Kenyans face and how they view athletics as an opportunity to rise from poverty.

“People have so many reasons for changing citizenship, Athletes for example from East African countries look at it from a survival point of view. They fully understand that the new founded opportunities (In their newly adopted country) will drastically change their livelihood. As someone that came to America to pursue education and running, I can understand why an athlete could change his or her citizenship if it means being able to put food on the table for their family or be able to send one’s children to school. How could I blame them for choosing that?”

“Just as much as I could not question a lawyer for taking a job abroad or with another company because it was simply a better deal, on the other hand, I can see how a local (native) athlete could feel discouraged if an athlete from a foreign country comes in and displaces them on an Olympic team. Unfortunately, there will be athletes abusing the system. I for one wish that there was a way that both sides could be satisfied, but I know the issue is complicated.”

Meanwhile athletes are indeed being displaced and while East Africans may see running as a way out of poverty, Europeans and North Americans often take a vow of poverty to compete, for the love of the sport. Some make it internationally, like Brown, Radcliffe and O’Sullivan and earn a living; however, many leave the sport early to pursue meaningful careers in a profession or trade.

“I think the way ahead is putting in place strict criteria so that there have to be distinct ties and long periods of time spent living in a country in order to switch to representing them. Also increasing the time period that an athlete must sit out when they do change will probably help,” added Radcliffe.

Unfortunately, as much as East Africans bring most of the performances and benchmarks to the sport, globally, it is the first world nations that bring corporate sponsors, broadcast rights and broad fan interest.

Unless Europeans can compete in the European championships against fellow Europeans, the championships will perish and then the East Africans will not have international cross-country to ply their trade in, therefore resulting in less opportunities to make a name for themselves in the sport of athletics as a whole.

Including cross-country as a sport in the Winter Olympics should also be a high priority. It would behoove the Winter Olympic committee to adopt the sport for their own commercial sake. The majority of the world population does not have the conditions to train and compete in winter sports and therefore do not have the interest in a winter games as fans of the sports, however, that could all change, by including cross-country running, also a fall and winter sport.

The European championships are indeed on their final legs and need desperate support, an overhaul, much deeper than just who is competing, but nationality is a critical piece of the puzzle that should be tackled now.


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