Mo Farah, who won the 10.000 m race on Tuesday /Getty Images
I’m again away from Madrid and from the regular blogging routine – this time off to the village to keep always important rural-urban links. Although I haven’t got much access to the internet (or time to make use of it with all the greeting family and friends), I have been watching some T.V. and specially the European Athletics Championships taking place in Barcelona all this week. And for those interested in athletics, bear in mind that parallel to these European Championships, are taking place in Nairobi the 17th African Senior Athletics Championships (they began yesterday and run also until Sunday).
It’s been while watching the competition in Barcelona that I have seen a number of athletes that compete for European countries but have African origins. During the world cup the subject of African footballers leaving their countries at an early age to play in European clubs, and the problems this creates for national African competitions, was the subject of a number of articles, like this one. To explain this, people often cite the lure of big European clubs, where there is a lot of money to be made; in other words, aspiring to be the new Drogba or Eto’o, would be an important reason for young African players to leave their countries.
Although a similar “brain”, or in this case “leg drain” can be seen in these athletics champioships, there are a number of interesting differences. First, these athletes have not only signed up for European clubs (which they have done too), but, given that the most important competitions are centred around national teams, they also become European nationals. Second, and again unlike football, this trend cannot be attributed to the six figures salaries footballers make. Here what seems more important are: a steady job (even if not very well paid), better training facilities, and the opportunity to compete internationally (often easier than in the countries where they were born, where they face tougher competition). The stories of these athletes however, are very different. There is for example the kid who is born in an African country (in this case in Hargeisa, Somalia) but moves at an early age to Europe and becomes a citizen there – this would be the case of the British Mohammed “Mo” Farah – crowned European 10.000m champion last Tuesday. Then there is those, like Francis Obikwuelu, who was born in Nigeria and lived and competed there until, at the age of 22 chose to compete for Portugal (he was based in Lisbon since he was 16) purely for professional reasons, after he felt the neglect of Nigerian sport officials. And finally, there is the case of those who come to Europe searching for a better life and more opportunities and, thanks to their skills, manage to make it on the sports world. A perfect example of this is the Ethiopian-born Alemayehu Bezabeh, who will run the 5.000m race for Spain (and is one of our best chances to get a medal at the championships). According to Wikipedia, Bezabeh:
arrived in Spain in 2004 via plane and stayed in the country as an illegal immigrant, sleeping outdoors and dreaming of becoming a professional runner. He began living off the winnings of the races he would take part in every week. Following a calf injury, doctors at a hospital in the Community of Madrid discovered that he had no papers and he did not know his date of birth. X-ray wrist tests revealed him to be over 18 and after some estimations of his age he was given a nominal birthday of 1 January 1986.The test involved examination of the proportions of the individual bones of a wrist; it provides an estimate of biological age of a growing body, but is not informative for an age above 18 (male) when the bone growth saturates.
As a result of his strong running skills, Desta was given naturalised citizen status in 2008 to allow him to compete internationally for Spain.
Bezabeh at the 2009 European Cross Country Championships / Photo: Wikipedia