Thursday, December 14, 2006

Switched Allegiance

Been thinking aboutAllegiance.

And of course, living in the United States, the first thing that word brings to mind is The Pledge of Allegiance with which millions of American children begin their school day. “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, …” I am sure that for many of these children it is just a daily ritual they go through without giving a second thought to the seriousness of their uttering. It is recited day after day, year after year, “… one Nation under God, indivisible, …” even as hidden rifts are exposed with events such as the 2000 Presidential Election. The pledge concludes “… with liberty and justice for all” just as we are told this very week that, after all, the Middle-East may not be so eager to embrace American type democracy and “liberty for all” may really not mean for all.

Needless to say, allegiance is serious business. And those who truly understand where their allegiance lies, and remain faithful to it at any cost, are truly inspiring. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Hebrews 11:26 where we read about how Moses chose disgrace for the sake of Christ rather than the riches of Egypt. I think of the early Chrisitans who chose being burned at the stake rather than affirm “Ceasar is Lord.” In more recent times, the story of people such as the runner Eric Liddell is quite inspiring and it has been made into the movie Chariots of Fire.

Conversely, it is astonishing to hear stories of people who switch allegiances, some of them at a drop of a dime. I was amazed to learn that the staunchly conservative Republican President Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat! In 2001, Senator Jim Jeffords decided that he was no longer a Republican and instantly tipped the power balance in Congress. I often remember how Arsenio Hall once joked that he would gladly don the hood of KKK if the money was right.

Just like many issues of regular every day life, the issue of switched allegiance has been present in the sport of running for sometime now. The winner of the 1936 Olympic Marathon ran for Japan although he was a Korean native. We can at least give him a pass considering he was forced to run for Japan against his wishes. Of course, he did not have to win for Japan so I am not sure that he should get a full pass. In the 1984 Olympics, one of the most infamous races in Olympic History featured Zola Budd, a South-African-turned-British. It seems like the way the race unfolded caused more of an uproar than Budd’s switched citizenship.

More recently, Khalid Khannouchi, a former marathon world record holder, became an American Citizen few years ago and he openly talks about his desire to bring an Olympic Medal to his newly adopted country. In a clear indication of where his allegiance now lies, Khannouchi has made it known that he has no desire to wear the uniform of his native Morocco:

"I could still go run in the Olympics for Morocco. The king himself has called to ask me to do that. My own father, whom I love dearly, has asked me to do that. The Moroccan track federation said it would put me on the team.

"But this I will not do. I will run in the Olympics for the United States, God willing, either this summer in the 10,000 meters or in the marathon four years from now, and I will be in world meets for this country in the near future."

The list of runners who have switched allegiance goes on an on. Two of the current top American marathoners, Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman are natives of Eritrea and Somalia, respectively. Merlene Otey, the ageless Jamaican sprint queen, is now a Slovenian citizen. The current top American miler, Bernard Lagat, is a Kenyan native. The fact that Lagat competed for Kenya in the 2004 Athens Olympics, while keeping silent about his newly acquired American Citizenship prior to the Olympics, is quite telling about how one can be torn apart by switching an allegiance. The Kenyan native Danish runner Wilson Kipketer missed out from participating in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, at the prime of his career, because his allegiance had changed from Kenya to Denmark.

America and other wealthy nations are often the beneficiary of switched allegiance- be it in science, politics, or even athletics. But on rare occasions, they also find themselves on the losing side of the deal, as in the case of Felix Sanchez. Though he was born and raised in New York City, Sanchez brought the first ever Olympic Medal to the Dominican Republic and he is a national hero there.

It is quite fascinating to see some of these athletes who have switched nationality win a race and then go on to celebrate their victory with two flags in hand. Meb Keflezghi always carries the American and Eritrean flag during his celebration. Even the super-star Marion Jones opted to celebrate with two flags, one American and the other Belizean, upon winning the 100M race in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. What a stark contrast to Emperor Haile proudly, and exclusively, carrying Ethiopia’s Tri-Color.

In all the cases mentioned above, it is the athletes themselves that sought out the citizenship change as a means of expanding opportunities for their trade. And I have no problem with that in the same way as my partner blogger ATTILATHEHUN. However, I am disturbed by the most recent “runner for hire” African expedition of Middle-Eastern countries in aggressive pursuit of coveted championship and Olympic medals. To make matters worse, these countries are not content on simply transacting a citizenship change, but are also requiring a name change and apparently change of religion too!

It has been quite sad for me to see talented Ethiopian runners having to switch their nationality in order to find success in their profession. Although it is getting more media coverage now, Ethiopian natives running for other countries is nothing new. The two best Marathon runners Israel has on its rosters are Ethiopians- Haile Satayin and Asaf Bimro. One of Australia’s best marathon runner is an Ethiopian named Gemechu Woyecha. Even Haile Gebrselassie’s older brother Tekeye is a Dutch citizen and represented the Netherlands on many occasions in the past.

Of course, thousands of ordinary Ethiopians have also switched their allegiance by taking citizenship of another country in the post Revolution era. It would therefore be quite hypocritical to single out elite athletes and fault them for doing the very same thing other Ethiopians do on a daily basis. After all, why should athletes be held to higher standards than, say, Medical Doctors?

I have met and talked to several Ethiopian elite runners at local races on weekends around the Washington, D.C. area. These runners, although talented enough to have represented Ethiopia in the past, are pursuing challenging lives in the United States where they work multiple jobs and run races on weekends hoping to win couple of hundred dollars to help make ends meet. I have nothing but admiration for the talent they possess and the little financial reward they get in return from their running talent.

But one has to wonder how much is too much for a person to concede for the sake of opportunity. Is changing a name OK? The Ethiopian runner Hewan Abeye is now the Turkish Elvan Abeylegesse. And she is fighting tooth and nail to take medals and records away from Ethiopian runners.

How about changing a religion? How about losing a family tie? The Ethiopian Zenebech Tola is now the Bahraini Maryam Jamal. Ethiopia has lost a runner and Ato Tola has lost a daughter. Incidentally, it is interesting to ponder how the world would respond if the United States made Abdi Abdirahman change his name to "John Christiansen" as a pre-requisite for representing USA in competition?

I think the lesson here should be two fold: first, we should be immensely grateful to those athletes who choose to train in Ethiopia and compete for Ethiopia. Unlike many, they are proving their worth by remaining faithful in their allegiance to Ethiopia. I am sure Haile and Derartu could have made even more money than they now have by accepting citizenship of a “wealthier” country. Instead they have kept their allegiance to Ethiopia and have already contributed immensely for the betterment of Ethiopia in athletics as well as other sectors.

Secondly, the Ethiopian Sports Federation should learn, sooner than later, to take good care of its athletes and provide fair and unbiased treatment. I have heard some disheartening stories of mistreatments by the Federation from some of the Ethiopian athletes who have decided to stay in the US.

Elvan and Maryam are obviously highly talented athletes that got away. It is also obvious, by the fact that they decided to leave, that they were not given opportunity to blossom within the existing system. As a result Ethiopia has a reduced talent pool to pick from for competitions. Even now, after these expatriate athletes have achieved success outside of Ethiopia, they are viewed as enemies and are not welcome to train with other Ethiopian athletes when they visit their homeland. If Ethiopians can have occasional training sessions with Kenyans, Morrocans, and Mexicans, what is so terrible about training with Ethiopian natives who compete for other countries?

As Ethiopians, we have lost much too much over the past 25 years. It is my hope that 25 years from now we will not look back and realize the fate, and the faith, of Ethiopia’s extraordinary athletes have been sold to the highest bidder.

Long live ROOCHA and Jesus is LORD!