What you need to know:
- Home of champions suffers talent drain
- Jebet is also the Bahraini national record holder and gold medallist at the 2013 Asian Athletics Championships.
- The World Junior Championship is open for athletes aged 19 and below.
They can’t sing their country’s national anthem, they can’t take the wildest guess on who their Head of State is and they can hardly speak a word of their national language, Arabic.
Yet a strong team of athletes is in TrackTown USA, ready to represent their “beloved nation” at the IAAF World Junior Championships at Hayward Field, the sacred home of US track and field.
Some are assured of getting onto the podium and will return to Manama, the capital of the oil-rich nation of Bahrain, to a huge, rewarding welcome that will most certainly change their lives forever.
These are young Kenyans spirited away, or should we say cradle-snatched, from high schools in Nairobi and the Rift Valley, shoved into Bahrain’s maroon and white strip and told to go forth and bring medals for their new country.
Of the 10 members of the Bahraini Junior team here, three are Kenya-born, namely Evans Rutto Chematot (steeplechase), Ruth Jebet (steeplechase and 3,000 metres) and Rosemary Mumo Katua (steeplechase). Indeed, the defection of virtual toddlers from Kenya has been a major talking point on the sidelines of the 15th edition of the IAAF World Junior Championships which run from Tuesday to Sunday at Hayward Field, the popular venue for the annual IAAF Diamond League track and field meet.
The championship’s opening final at these championships, for athletes aged 19 and below, will be the men’s 10,000 metres from 6.30am (Kenyan time) on Wednesday with the relays closing the programme on Sunday evening at the 10,500-seater stadium initially constructed for American football in 1919 before a running track was laid in 1921.
Answering a question on the teenage defectors by Daily Nation Sport, IAAF president Lamine Diack said change of allegiance is a problem the world athletics governing body has been grappling with, but unable to stop.
“Africa has been fighting for a long time to maintain not only athletes, but other good professionals, like scientists,” Diack said.
“To retain your best, you must give them the possibility to realise their full potential. We cannot close the door to athletes who change nationality because the world today is a global village,” Diack added.
“Previously we used to say that an athlete must finish three years after competing for one country before moving to another country, but the rules have changes and now it’s as less as one year if the two federations agree,” the IAAF supremo observed.
Of the trio of Kenyan Bahrainis, Jebet is the top draw, having dominated Kenyan school competitions while at Riruta Secondary School, especially in cross country running, before defecting.
The 17-year-old has already moved to big things in Asia, currently with the world’s fastest junior time in the steeplechase (9:27.90) which, bizarrely, comes at a time when the dearth of Kenyan women’s steeplechasing is under scrutiny with the dramatic dip in form of world champion Milcah Chemos.
Jebet is also the Bahraini national record holder and gold medallist at the 2013 Asian Athletics Championships.
“Jebet is most certainly our biggest threat, given the talent she displayed at school competitions in Kenya,” Kenya’s head coach here, George Ogeto, conceded. Kenyans facing Jebet in the 3,000 metres will be Valentina Chepkwemoi Matieko and Lilian Kasait Rengeruk, the latter gold medallist over the distance at last year’s World Youth Championships in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Jebet will double up in the steeplechase where she will team up with Katua and face the Kenyan pair of decorated former compatriots, defending champion from Barcelona 2012 Daisy Jepkemei and Rosefline Chepng’etich, the World Youth 2,000m steeplechase champion.
Interestingly, Chepng’etich won the gold and Jepkemei silver in a Kenyan 1-2 sweep at last year’s World Youth Championships in Ukraine, a competition for athletes under 17 years.
The World Junior Championship is open for athletes aged 19 and below. Besides the three Kenya-born Bahrainis in action here, Bahrain have also enlisted the services of Kenyan coach Gregory Kilonzo who took charge of the Kenyan team to this year’s Africa Cross Country Championships in Kampala.
“I was overlooked by the Kenyan federation and when an opening came up in Bahrain, I said why not,” Kilonzo said as the Bahraini team arrived in Oregon.
“And I’m sure I will beat the Kenyans to some of the medals because my athletes are very strong,” he added.
These match-ups between Kenya-born runners will make for exciting banter at these championships.