Sebastian Coe alarmed by ‘human trafficking’ revelations in athletics

• Lord Coe urges IAAF Athletics Integrity Unit to investigate Guardian findings
• Exploitation of athletes is issue of ‘basic human rights’ says head of IAAF

Sebastian Coe has said he is deeply concerned by revelations about African runners being bought by richer nations and exploited, urging the IAAF’s Athletics Integrity Unit to investigate the issue as soon as possible.

As the Guardian revealed in a joint investigation with the German broadcaster ARD and Holland Media Combination, a growing number of Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes have been lured to transfer their national allegiance to countries such as Azerbaijan and Bahrain – only for prize money to be stolen, their movements restricted and to be treated “like slaves”.

Speaking as the London 2017 world championships began, the head of the sport’s world governing body said he had read the athletes’ stories with mounting horror. “We can’t have an element of our sport that has descended into human trafficking,” he told the Guardian. “This is just basic human rights – and it has to be addressed.”

Lord Coe also said the wider issue of athletes transferring allegiance was a problem, especially those switching for no obvious reason beyond a cynical attempt by oil-rich nations to increase their chances of winning medals on the world stage. However, he pointed out the IAAF had moved to suspend such transfers on 6 February and that he wanted to make it much tougher for them to happen in the future.

“We start off from a very basic principle – that if an athlete starts competing in a country there has to be a very good reason why they cease to compete for that country and compete for another country,” he said. “Now there may be some really strong extenuating circumstances for a council to be sensitive to political and cultural sensitivities and realities. But I can’t have a situation where I have got a federation president reporting to me that most mornings he is waking up to emails from their athletes who are looking for flags of convenience.

“This is complicated but we do need to make these processes a lot tougher, a lot tighter and, yes, give chances for genuine athletes to move,” he added. “But it can’t be done on the basis of two federations agreeing and an athlete running in a completely different uniform than they were running in six weeks ago.

“The transfer of allegiance issue isn’t just about some athlete being tapped up by another country because they have a shortage of 5,000m runners. As the Guardian has revealed this is also impacting on young athletes when they certainly should have more structures around them.”

Coe said the recently formed Athletics Integrity Unit, chaired by the former Wada director general David Howman, would investigate. “This is really good journalism and I am encouraging the Guardian and the athletes to share it with the Athletics Integrity Unit. That is exactly what they are there for and it’s exactly why I set it up to share such information.”

One such case involved Leonard Mucheru, a Kenyan distance runner, who moved to Bahrain in 2003 only to discover the promises made when he agreed to switch allegiance were not going to be honoured. “I began to feel like a slave,” he said. “When we got to Bahrain we realised that these guys could not allow you to go in a shop, to go to an entertainment joint. They would take your passport.”

Coe, a double Olympic champion, said he was lucky to come from a caring home and an environment that showed proper paternalistic interest. “The thought that some of these athletes – who are even younger than my children – are in that environment makes me curl up both as a parent and as a president,” he said.


Sean Ingle

The GuardianTramp

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