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Kenyan-born stars flying foreign flags

SPORTS

The 19th World Athletics Championships concluded inside the National Athletics Centre in Budapest, Hungary, on Sunday, with some exciting talking points on Kenya's athletics heritage.

It was simply Kenya versus Kenya B in some of the traditional races. Kenya B featured those who switched their allegiance to other nations.

From Makueni County to the world, Winfred Mutile Yavi, 23, made history.

 Kenyan-born Winfred Mutile Yavi, of Bahrain, competes in the women's 3000-metre steeplechase final at the World Athletics Championships on July 20, 2022, in Eugene, Oregon. [File]

The Kenyan-born Bahraini athlete produced a brilliantly executed race to win the women's 3000m steeplechase for her adopted nation, upsetting the big shots deployed by her mother country.

Her win left 3000m steeplechase World Record Holder Beatrice Chepkoech and youngster Faith Cherotich settling for silver and gold medals respectively.

Like her former women compatriots such as multiple record holder and world champion Faith Kipyegon, Chepkoech, world 800m champion Mary Moraa, and many others, Yavi combines beauty, brilliance, and courage. But she is a classic example of Kenya's top talents who have switched allegiance and gone ahead to deny the country medals in global championships.

The foreign talents train alongside their counterparts in Kenya even after finding lucrative opportunities in foreign countries. They occasionally train in their adopted countries.

At the 2022 World Championships in Oregon, Kenyan-born Kazakhstani athlete Norah Cheruto stormed to a 3000m steeplechase victory.

Despite switching their allegiances, the Kenyan-born foreign stars and the medals and trophies won in global championships and city road races are on wall cabinets right here in the country.

Decades-old practice

Switching allegiance and later competing with athletes from your country of birth started decades ago.

Yavi, for instance, has been Bahrain's jewel since winning a gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games. Yavi reportedly shifted her allegiance to the oil-rich Middle Eastern state at age 15. Her focus was to secure racing opportunities. She became eligible to compete for her adopted nation in August 2016.

Aged 17, she represented Bahrain at the 2017 World Athletics Championships, finishing eighth in the steeplechase final in a 9:22.67 personal best.

The 2023 world 3000m steeplechase marks Yavi's beginning in stardom. Before Budapest 23, she was already a big name in Asia, winning the 3000m steeplechase at the 2018 Asian Games.

She later won gold in the 5000m, a 3000m steeplechase gold, and a bronze 1500m at the 2019 Asian Championships, making Bahrain proud.

"It's awe-inspiring to know that Yavi's journey in sports was nurtured and honed at the Makueni County Talent Center (Ngakaa), an initiative that I, along with the community, had the privilege to launch during my tenure as the governor of Makueni County.

"Her educational path led her through Iuani Secondary School in Makueni and Kwanthanze Secondary School in Machakos, shaping her into the remarkable athlete she is today," former Makueni Governor Kivutha Kibwana said.

Prolific Kenyan-born road racer Joan Chelimo is now a proud Romanian.

 Joan Chelimo switched her allegiance to Romania in 2021

The Iten-based athlete had won over 18 road races ranging from 5km to half marathon before switching allegiance to Romania, a country in Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

Bilbao 15km, Valencia 10km, Boston 10km and Boston Half Marathon are among titles under Chelimo's belt.

At 32, she has her sights on flying the Romanian flag at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

Look at her social media and you will see why she is proud of Romania.

In 2021, when she switched allegiance, Chelimo said she had to make a difficult decision to advance her career. She said she was hopeful of government support and more running opportunities in the European country.

"(It is my) 10000m debut, 30:46:51, and Olympic Games standard what else?" she posted soon after the greenlight to represent Romania.

"Without Romania's support, I wouldn't be where I am today as a professional athlete. My progress and recent performances are largely due to Romania, which has offered me a coach, a new "family", a unique club - Dinamo and optimal training conditions. I have enormous respect for Romania and a lot of gratitude for everything it offers me. Happy birthday, Romania," Chelimo said as she celebrated her adopted country during its independence day on December 1, 2022.

Previously on December 1, 2021, Chelimo said: "Starting this year I can say not only from my heart, but also with evidence that Romania is my country. Maybe when you are not born here, but you decide to choose a country, you have the ability to see more of its beauty and appreciate the opportunities it offers you. I can only say that I look forward to being on the first stage of the podium and hearing Romania's anthem!"

In October 2022 she ran a Romania national record in the women-only marathon in London.

"Grateful for clocking 2:19:27 at the London Marathon with a blocked back and hamstring cramps from 30K. Still good for a new national record in women's only marathon & my best time and position in London so far," she said.

Earlier in April last year, she ran her first marathon in Seoul and posted her 2:18:04 personal best. "I am extremely happy with the new personal record, 2:18:04 and the fact that I managed to set a new record for Romania, surpassing the performance of an athlete I admire so much, Constantina Di dea. Thank you to my sponsor Adidas, I thank everyone who believed in me, my team and all the Romanians who sent me messages of encouragement," she said as she demonstrated love for her adopted country.

Athletes such as Paul Chelimo, a 5000m Olympic silver medallist as well as World 10,000m silver medallist Sally Kipyego are among a huge number of athletes competing for the USA.

Chelimo represented the USA in 5000m while another Kenyan-born Elkanah Kibet participated in the marathon at the 2023 Budapest World Championships.

Former 3000m steeplechase record holder Stephen Cherono also known as Saif Saaeed Shaheen represented Qatar from 2003.

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