Lily Abdullayeva, who says she had prize money stolen and was tricked into taking drugs after moving to Azerbaijan, reveals the dark side of athletics where African runners are bought by richer nations and exploited
The smell of fish stew pervades Lily Abdullayeva’s house, a 40-minute drive from central Addis Ababa, past a throng of roadside villages of colourful ramshackle huts where legs of beef hang from corrugated iron roofs and children in Manchester United shirts play barefoot.
A modest but smart brick building, it is shielded by rusty gates, beyond which several cows graze on a thirsty patch of grass. In the back room her mother-in-law lays on a mattress on the floor with Beheyaw, Lily’s 13-month-old son, snoozing beside her.
It is a typical scene of middle-class life in the Ethiopian capital but the clank of medals Lily is emptying from a tote bag on to a coffee table are the start of a different story. She offers a window into the dark side of elite athletics where African runners are bought by rich Arab and Middle Eastern nations, some to be cast aside when they are no longer winning. “We are treated like sporting slaves,” says Lily.
There are dozens of medals, including a few from her junior career when she was one of Ethiopia’s brightest middle-distance running talents. It was in 2009 that Lily, now 26, was first spotted at her local club in Addis Ababa by a Turkish coach who persuaded her to switch allegiance to Azerbaijan.
“They promised me a good salary, a house and expensive cars if I won races,” she says. “But I never received any. I had my prize money stolen, was tricked into taking drugs and I would advise against anyone doing it.”
Lily is not the only athlete to change nationality. On a single day last year – before the Rio Olympics – the IAAF, athletics’ world governing body, had 25 applications to switch allegiance. Many of these were for no obvious reason, beyond a cynical attempt by oil-rich nations like Qatar, Bahrain and Azerbaijan to increase their chances of winning medals on the world stage.
At the European championships in Amsterdam last summer, Turkey had its most successful performance, winning 12 medals, six of those claimed by former Kenyan athletes. Kazakhstan is expected to follow suit with many African-born athletes thought to be making their debut for the country at the world championships in London which start on Friday.
But a joint investigation by the Guardian, the German broadcaster ARD and Holland Media Combination has found that some of these athletes competing under a flag of convenience are routinely mistreated, denied prize money and sometimes housed in filthy conditions.
Lily Abdullayeva competes for Azerbaijan in the 3,000m steeplechase at the 2010 European championships in Barcelona. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Image
Lily, who was known as Layes while competing for Azerbaijan, claims she was promised $300 a month, rising to $1,000 if she had a good result. In her first few months, she became a European junior silver medallist but the money did not materialise and she was receiving only $150 a month.
“After eight months I asked my coach why I was not being paid the $1,000 and threatened to ask the president of the federation where my money was,” she says. “As soon as I said that, he gave me money from his own pocket there and then. It turned out he had been keeping it himself from the third month.”
Lily continued to succeed, promoting the interests of the Azerbaijani government, which has tried to put itself on the sporting map in recent years by hosting the inaugural European Games and a Formula One grand prix. She rifles through a photo album, stopping on a picture showing her running alongside the British athlete Helen Clitheroe on her way to winning 3,000m bronze at the European Indoor Championships in Paris in 2011. But it was a burning desire to succeed at London 2012 that Lily says made her coaches begin to ply her with drugs.
“At the Stockholm Diamond League in 2011 I was injured but was ordered to compete anyway,” she says. “After warming up my coach Mitin Sesak came up to me and said: ‘Lily open your mouth.’ He put one tablet on my tongue and I swallowed. Finally I had the courage to ask what he was giving to me and he said: ‘It can help you if you are scared or have fear, you can be strong.’
“But he got distracted and forgot he left the packet with me. I read it and it said ‘tribulus testosterone’. I went on the internet to check the side effects and one said infertility. When I saw that information I was very angry. I was fighting to have a better life but not to have any problems in the future with conceiving. But they didn’t care.
“I was at a training camp in Georgia and Mitin gave me some injections. He said he was giving me small injections, not the big ones, yet. His target was the Olympics and world championships. He didn’t want us to have very good results before then because the government would not be feeling as happy if we get medals at the Olympics so he saved the stronger stuff.”
Sesak is now serving a lifetime ban from athletics as a result of a case brought by Turkish anti-doping authorities.
Lily tugs at the bottom of her Minnie Mouse sweatshirt and shakes her head as she recalls leaving Azerbaijan after four years representing them. In 2013 she had been given $25,000 by the government for winning a race but claims the Azerbaijan Athletics Federation president took $7,000 of that money and also refused to continue paying her salary.
“He promised to send the rest of the prize money to me when I was back in Ethiopia but never did,” she says.
Back home in Addis Ababa, Lily Abdullayeva displays her athletics trophies and medals. Photograph: ARD
In a statement responding to the allegations, the Azerbaijan Athletics Federation says: “It is true that Ms L Abdullayeva has indeed competed as an athlete in Azerbaijan during the period of 2009-13. However, it should be pointed out that she had not entered into any contractual arrangement with the Azerbaijan Athletics Federation.” It adds that she was competing for an individual sports club and that “she has received all due prize money. The Federation refutes her allegations as baseless that she is still somehow due some prize money.
“As to her claims about drugs … she has been subjected to due drug/doping control procedures like other athletes by the European and other anti-doping agencies and they have all proved negative.
“We find it totally unacceptable that she continues to direct allegations aimed at damaging the reputation of the athletics federation and her former coaches.”
It is not only Azerbaijan that is trading in athletes. Every Olympic medal ever won by Bahrain has been by an athlete born in Africa. Ruth Jebet, a 20-year-old from Kenya, claimed the country’s first ever Olympic gold in the 3,000m steeplechase in Rio last summer while Eunice Kirwa, also from Kenya, won silver in the marathon.
Leonard Mucheru, a Kenyan distance runner, moved to Bahrain in 2003. The attractions were manifold, not least because it is so difficult to get in the Kenyan national team, which has a proliferation of world-class runners. But Mucheru says he quickly realised the promises he had been made when he agreed to switch allegiance were not going to be honoured.
“I began to feel like a slave,” he says. “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. I told them no because I need it to send money to my family back home. But they said I wasn’t allowed to leave the hotel room anyway.
“They promised that once we changed citizenship we would get a contract but we never signed anything so there was nothing binding and no regulations. I got injured in 2006 and went a full year without being paid by the Bahrain Athletics Federation.”
Bahrain rejects Mucheru’s allegations and says that no official complaint was ever lodged.
The Professional Athletics Association of Kenya, which represents athletes and coaches, produced a report last year presented to the country’s sports ministry alleging corruption in Athletics Kenya, the governing body.
The report, seen by the Guardian and ARD, is written by the organising secretary, Julius Ndegwa, and says: “On athletes changing nationality to compete for other countries our client alleges that Athletics Kenya officials conspire with officials from the said nations to ‘sell’ an athlete at a negotiable price depending on how rich an athlete is and how productive the athlete is.”
Mucheru believes a lack of education for young African athletes often leads to them being exploited. “There is a huge problem with agents who take advantage of athletes who are very young and often not very well educated,” he says. “A lot of them who are promised to get a chance to go to Europe do not think about the contract, they just go.
“I think the IAAF are to blame as well as the individual federations because they did not have tight enough regulations. I think we need a strong world governing body which will educate the athletes and fill those holes where [people] can manipulate the athletes, abuse them and take their money illegally.”
In February the IAAF said it was putting an immediate stop to changes of nationality by athletes, agreeing the system had become open to abuse and rules were being manipulated.
The organisation’s president, Sebastian Coe, said a working group would be set up to agree new rules by the end of the year. Lord Coe admitted that previous regimes at the International Association of Athletics Federations may have failed to grasp the seriousness of the issue.
“It had got out of hand,” he says. “On a single day in the buildup to Rio we had 25 or 26 applications to switch nationalities. Some of those would have been for legitimate reasons but clearly it was a problem.
“Athletes are not tradable commodities. They are human beings and we want the best athletes of their generation competing and showcasing our sport. We don’t want a sport where they are being traded in the dark. That is clearly not something I would condone.”
For Lily, it may be too late. An injury to her heel was exacerbated by training in freezing conditions at a training camp in Belarus, where it was so cold car engines would not start and schools were closed.
She has now switched allegiance back to Ethiopia and has returned to training following the birth of her first child but her chance of running for the country she loves is probably gone.
“I tried my best for Azerbaijan,” she says. “I trained hard and ran well but in the end they treated me like rubbish.”