9th August 2017

Documentary alleges African athlete trafficking & doping

A joint investigation by ARD, The Guardian, and Holland Media Combination has found that African athletes are being naturalised in exchange for money by nations keen to capitalise on their success, often with little regard for their welfare. The same investigation has also found that prohibited substances – such as erythropoietin (EPO) – is freely available for sale in Ethiopia, a country used by many nations for high altitude training camps. The country’s national stadium is in the capital Addis Ababa, which is over 2,000 metres above sea level.

In a documentary screened by ARD on 4 August (video below) Layesh Tsiege explains how she changed her name to Layes Abdulayeva to compete for Azerbaijan, despite living in Ethiopia. She alleges that her passport took one week to arrange, after she was spotted by Turkish coach Mitin Sesak in the Ethiopian capital. She alleges that she was promised US$1,000 per month plus bonuses such as houses and cars for wins, however she only received around $300 per month plus none of the promised prizes.

She also alleges that she was ordered to dope by Sesak, who is now serving a lifetime ban. The Azerbaijian athletics federation told The Guardian that Tsiege had never agreed a contract, but also said that she had been paid her prize money. It also said that Tsiege had been repeatedly tested for prohibited substances, and had never reported an adverse analytical finding (AAF).

Transfer of allegiance

The documentary alleges that the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) has recorded over 500 changes of nationality in the last 20 years. In the 2016 Rio Olympic year, IAAF documentation reveals that 85 changes to nationality were recorded up to 26 July. Of those, 36 were from African countries. All of the Olympic medals ever won by Bahrain have been won by naturalised African athletes.

On 6 February this year, the IAAF suspended the transfer of allegiance process over concerns that young athletes were being abused, however new rules have yet to be ratified. “The present situation is wrong”, said Africa Area Group Representative on the IAAF Council, Hamad Kalkaba Malboum, in a statement. “What we have is a wholesale market for African talent open to the highest bidder. Our present rules are being manipulated to the detriment of athletics’ credibility. Lots of the individual athletes concerned, many of whom are transferred at a young age, do not understand that they are forfeiting their nationality.”

Under IAAF Competition Rules (Rule 5.4(d)), an athlete who has already represented a nation must wait three years before representing a new nation. However, this period can be reduced to one year with the agreement of the two member federations concerned. Also, it does not apply to young athletes who have yet to represent their nation.

The makers claim to have documents proving that Turkey arranged for the transfer of allegiance of three Kenyan athletes for US$5,000. Turkey finished fourth in last year’s IAAF U23 World Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland. Ten of its 12 medals were won by naturalised athletes, six of whom were from Kenya. This included Yasemin Can, who was born as Kenyan Vivian Jemutai, who represented Turkey at the 10,000m in the Rio 2016 Olympics.


Yasemin Can finished seventh in the 10,000m at the Rio 2016, after Ethiopian Almaz Ayana smashed a world record that had stood since 1993 by almost 14 seconds. There is no suggestion that Can or Ayana have broken any rules, but Ayana’s performance raised eyebrows, especially as the previous record holder was alleged to have been part of a Chinese state sponsored doping regime in the 1990s.

Layesh Tsiege’s husband is Ethiopian national team coach Yirefu Birhanu. In the documentary, he alleges that prohibited substances are being given to athletes by unscrupulous coaches, who refer to them as ‘vitamins’. The documentary and supporting investigative work by The Guardian alleged that erythropoietin (EPO) was freely available in a pharmacy opposite the Addis Ababa national stadium during this year’s national championships. In three visits, two Guardian reporters managed to purchase nine vials of EPO for £79 from the pharmacy without a prescription.

The documentary and Guardian report alleges that despite the official line that doping controls at the national championships were strict, there were testing discrepancies. ARD reporters stationed themselves at the finish line for four hours during the championships, and allege that no athletes were taken to the doping control station (DCS). On visiting the DCS themselves, they found it unstaffed.

The ARD documentary says the official line was that 23 tests were carried out. Testing figures supplied to The Guardian initially had the wrong date on them, and appear to be inconsistent. It also features a recording with a top female Ethiopian athlete – allegedly a winner of the Berlin Marathon – who confesses to stopping use of EPO and human growth hormone (HGH) one week before a major race.

Alleged exploitation

The documentary also alleges that German coach, Alexander Hempel, is exploiting athletes for money paid by race organisers for African pacemakers. The documentary features footage of a basement in Hempel’s Schöneck home where athletes are allegedly housed. Contracts sent to ARD allegedly stipulate a US$10,000 payment to Hempel if they are breached.

Under IAAF Regulations, athlete representatives are required to undertake a test requiring knowledge of the IAAF Code of Ethics. Hempel denies the accusation that the athletes are being exploited, and claims that his contracts are standard, but allegedly refused to send them to ARD.


The IAAF is not the only sport that has struggled with transfer of nationality issues. Ten years ago, Qatar’s Aspire Academy launched Aspire Football Dreams, a programme to identify young African football talent, the best of which would then travel to Qatar for assessment. Since 2007, Aspire boasts that 3.5 million boys have passed through its programme. The country has also naturalised a number of footballers from other countries in order to raise the profile of the sport. It is preparing for its hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The use of Latin American footballers by Asian nations, including passport falsification, has also been well documented by The Sports Integrity Initiative. In 2015, I found that African football players were being duped by fake agents using the promise of European football glory (video below). Many African footballers brought to Europe are also abandoned by unscrupulous agents.

Rugby union has also struggled with naturalisation issues, as its rules allow players who have lived in a country for three years to represent that country internationally. Pundits have claimed that this issue damages the international game.

Under the current sporting system, athletes have few rights. The Athlete Agreement mandates that all disputes must be settled by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), preventing recourse to an ordinary court of law. The CAS is financed by the Olympic movement, which also decides who should be appointed as arbitrators.

In such a closed system, international sporting federations have a duty to identify and protect athletes from exploitation, such as has been outlined by ARD, The Guardian and Holland Media Combination. In February, the IAAF indicated that it knew this problem existed.

“It has become abundantly clear with regular multiple transfers of athletes especially from Africa that the present rules are no longer fit for purpose”, said IAAF President Sebastian Coe in February’s statement. “Athletics, which at its highest levels of competition is a championship sport based upon national teams, is particularly vulnerable in this respect. Furthermore, the present rules do not offer the protections necessary to the individual athletes involved and are open to abuse.”

Yet since February, the IAAF appears to have sat on the issue. ‘The ARD documentary that aired last week contained a number of concerning allegations regarding the integrity of athletics’,  wrote an Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) spokesperson in response to questions on the issues highlighted in the investigation. ‘As such, the Athletics Integrity Unit will be following up as necessary and making inquiries regarding the areas within its remit’.

Once again, whistleblowers have chosen to go to media organisations rather than the international body that is supposed to represent them. The fact that the IAAF knew about this issue but the affected athletes chose to go to the media should worry every athlete under its jurisdiction. Especially as the IAAF is publicly courting the reintroduction of life bans for doping, despite a number of identified issues with this.

In 2013, the IAAF decided to delay the announcement of Russian doping positives until after the Moscow 2013 World Championships in order to avoid damaging its commercial interests. It would appear that the IAAF has not learned from this mistake. Once again, it appears to have identified a serious issue, and swept it under the carpet to risk damaging the image of athletics.

Last week, the Russian Athletics Federation’s (RusAF) Mikhail Butov explained that whilst events such as London 2017 had not yet been affected by a loss of public faith in athletics, many smaller events were suffering. It appears that athletes with serious complaints have again lost faith in the IAAF’s ability to resolve them. Unless the IAAF gets to grips with the conflict of interest created by its dual role in policing and promoting sport, the public will also lose faith in the sport. If that happens, it will not have any commercial interests left to damage.

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