The Big Money Run - Africa's Athletes on Sale

Läufer in Äthiopien

Suspicion: Contact between international track and field athletics manager and Freiburg doping doctor?

The Big Money Run - Africa's Athletes on Sale

Von Hajo Seppelt und Olaf Lippegaus

The amazing African runners. For decades now, they have dominated long-distance track and field athletics – at the major marathons, the Olympic Games, and World championships. And now even the European championships, for many of the runners have changed nationalities. They now run for Turkey, for example, or Azerbaijan. African athletes who hire themselves out this way are lured time and again by false promises, are cheated of their prize money, housed under questionable conditions, and dragged from one competition to the next. The profiteers are sports managers, mostly from Europe, who fatten their wallets at the expense of the athletes. And when it comes to maximizing profits with the commodity "athletes", doping often comes into play. Research conducted by the ARD Anti-Doping Editorial Team in collaboration with the British Guardian and the Holland Media Combinatie leads from Africa to the middle of Germany.

Layesh Tsige is proud to show others her medals and trophies. Between 2009 and 2015, the Ethiopian belonged to the international crème de la crème of the middle- and long-distance female track and field athletes. Nevertheless, hardly anyone knows her real name. Because the now 26-year-old woman achieved her greatest success after she had changed her nationality in 2009. The Ethiopian Layesh Tsige became the Azerbaijani Layes Abdullayeva.

"The Azerbaijan passport was arranged for me in Turkey," she says. "I only had to fly there once for this. The formalities were completed within a week. Soon after, I took part in a competition, on behalf of Azerbaijan. "We were promised a lot: If we were internationally successful at the Olympic Games, the world championships and the European championships, we would be given a house or an expensive car by the government. Those were the promises. She barely ever knew her new "home": she went there only a few times – among other reasons, for a reception with Illham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan.

She had hoped that the contract with the country's athletics federation would ensure a financially secure future. The promises, as she remembers, were generous: "We were promised a lot: If we were internationally successful at the Olympic Games, the world championships and the European championships, we would be given a house or an expensive car by the government. Those were the promises."

But the reality proved different. The promised salaries were denied, the prize monies withheld. As for expensive automobiles or let alone any houses – nowhere to be seen, she says. And that despite six medals at World and European Championships as the Azerbaijani athlete, Layes Abdullayeva.

After five years she finally drew the line. Layesh Tsige reacquired her Ethiopian citizenship.

In response to ARD's request for commentary, the Athletics Federation of Azerbaijan denied all responsibility.

Over the past two decades, the statistics kept by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) record nearly 500 changes of nationality. Above all, it is the runners from the countries of Africa who have given up their citizenship for a new identity. And the most conspicuous "importers" are countries without any tradition in track and field athletes: Bahrain, Qatar, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

At the 2016 European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam, the Turkish team won 12 medals. Ten of the medals were won by naturalized athletes – of which six were former Kenyans.

The president of the Turkish Athletics Federation sees nothing wrong with that: "To those countries voicing the criticism, I say: They should clean up their own yard. Our goal, if Allah wills, is to be among the best three in Europe and among the best five in the world over the next few years."

Technically, athletes who change their nationality are supposed to be suspended from competition for three years – unless, that is, the involved federations agree upon an earlier date. It is said that money has often helped in this regard. As it supposedly also helped the Turks.

An accusation that the president of the Turkish Athletics Federation refutes: "Whoever says that is obliged to prove the accusation." And further: "Whoever claims this must prove this allegation. All I can say is: If there is anyone who states such a thing and can prove that we ever paid a single Turkish lira, they should disclose this to put us in the picture."

ARD has such emails. Emails in which a Turkish manager mentions four-digit sums so that the "change of citizenship" will have the "the support and agreement of the Kenyan federation". The prospect of an "extra bonus" is even presented. The manager in question has not responded to any inquiries from ARD.

According to Sebastian Coe, the president of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) for the past two years, his predecessors probably underestimated the troublesome nature of nationality changes: "You know, we’re not a sport about human trafficking and we’re not a sport that can allow such a laissez-faire-system. My instinct was to have the IAAF dealing with requests that were coming in something like 25 a day. Tells me that we needed to look at this problem."

As a start, the IAAF has assured, all new requests are being put on ice and new regulations are being considered. Regrettably, not for the first time. At the Track and Field World Championships, many countries are going to once again bask in the glory achieved by (formerly) African runners.

Many have posed the question of whether amazing African runners might not occasionally have the assistance of banned substances. Here, too, European managers might possibly play a pivotal role. One of the most successful among them is the Dutchman Jos Hermens. He alone represents more than 100 athletes participating in the IAAF 2017 World Athletics Championships in London in August.

When contacted by ARD, Hermens admitted contacts to the University Medical Center Freiburg. A former employee of the medical center, Dr. Lothar Heinrich, is at the heart of one of the largest doping scandals in Germany. Heinrich has admitted to doping the professional cyclists of the T-Mobile Team for years on end. When approached by ARD, Jos Hermens revealed that some of his runners had consulted doctors in Freiburg – but never Lothar Heinrich.

That isn't quite how it sounds in an article from 2004 found on the IAAF website: in regard to his top athletes of the time, Hermens told the IAAF back then that he consults only the best physicians. Names are mentioned – and one of them is Dr. Lothar Heinrich.

The doping suspicions against Heinrich weren't yet proven at that time, but he had already long caught the attention of others. As early as 1999, reports had already continually surfaced linking the professional cyclists of the T-Mobile Team as well as Dr. Heinrich with possible cases of doping. And a sports insider like Jos Hermens supposedly knew nothing about them?

ARD reporters have met with an informant who claims to have worked for a long time with Jos Hermens. According to him, "The most important thing for Jos Hermens was not to provide doping substances, but to point his athletes to someone who could help them. They got an effective doping plan for the training from that person, so they could win medals and prizes at competitions. In my case, this was Lothar Heinrich."

The informant, who doesn't want to be named but he affirms his statements in lieu of oath, also brought attention to certain emails. Emails that make it very clear that Hermens and Heinrich probably know each other very well. And the informant also told of his own personal visits to the Freiburg Department of Sports Medicine in 2005 and 2006.

As he remembers it: "To start with, Heinrich carried out blood tests on the athletes to see how tired they were, whether they were lacking anything in their diet. Then he gave us the doping plans – for EPO, growth hormone. He explained that this was part of the training. We drove home and bought the substances ourselves."

Was it like that? For decades, the Department of Sports Medicine of the University Medical Center Freiburg was the doping center of the Federal Republic of Germany. Did one medical center doctor truly orchestrate the doping practices of top African runners? Thanks to the mediation of one of the best-known track and field athletics managers of the world – Jos Hermens?

It would be an entirely new chapter in the Freiburg doping scandal.

When contacted by ARD, the university denied any knowledge of whether its former employee Lothar Heinrich, or any other doctor of the medical center, had ever treated any African track and field athletes. There are no relevant records to be found in the archives.

In other words, therefore: Whatever connections existed between the manager Hermens and the former Freiburg sports physician Heinrich, they were unknown to the clinic's management.

Despite repeated requests for a statement, Lothar Heinrich remains silent.

As for Jos Hermens, the top manager – this isn't the first time that he's been caught in the shadows cast by doping doctors.

So the question remains: Was this also the case in Freiburg? With African runners?

Stand: 03.08.2017, 20:08