Thursday, July 18, 2019

A TALE OF DEFECTION –How Norway Snatched Gambia of its Biggest Athlete

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By Sulayman Bah

The scotching sun isn’t forgiving. It’s the biting, dusty version of the harmattan. Outside is a wave of noise of natives haggling and incessant car horns in a very cosmopolitan Gambian capital, Banjul.

Seated on a wooden flat chair is athletics’ boss Dodou Capy Joof, a retired veteran of many seasons. Clad in his usual attire –a grey mini long sleeves gown with a matching hat, an antidote to the heat. He leans forward at mid-frozen attention at the mention of Jaysuma Saidy-Ndure.

Dubbed Capy – a sobriquet for captain – is a phrase he has come to be fondly referred to from his heydays when he joggled football and athletics in one go. Now head of the Gambia Athletics Association (GAA), Capy wasn’t at the helm of the GAA when Jaysuma dumped Gambia for Norway but was still an important cog to the athletics governing body.

Born in Bakau, an Atlantic coast town famed for its botanical gardens and crocodile pool, Saidy was raised by his mother.

Gifted with a reservoir of energy, taking up athletics wasn’t a difficult choice to make for the then youngster. The tale is that he skipped the 100m to avoid beating a close bosom of his, taking preference in the 200m events instead.

Being Gambia’s brightest talent on the tracks at the time, he shot to the limelight when he set a national record of 21.27 seconds in the 200m of the 2001 West African Championship held in Lagos, Africa’s most populous city.

Setting a national feat is expected to boost an athlete’s morale but not a then 18-year-old Jaysuma, who, on account of the euphoria hovering around his persona, had the world to his feet.

For youthful exuberance, he did not take running with the desired seriousness and so still found around his busy schedule to play basketball and volleyball with schoolmates.

Twelve months after his record shattering show, he moved to Norway. Reports have it that he flew to the Scandinavian country on the invitation of his father who it’s said settled there in the 1970s. However, there is a tale to the contrary suggesting he transferred there on training with the support of his aunt who it is said, adopted him.

Departing Gambia’s shores for Northern Europe will come to change his career and life forever. A 19 year-old Jaysuma returned to Banjul briefly carrying in his bag a passport different from the one Gambia Athletics Association had helped him secure before leaving the West African nation’s borders in 2002. It occurred that he’d impressed coaches during his stay at the European country and who’d resolved giving him their national documents as a naturalised Gambian-Norwegian. Then it sank in, spreading like a raging inferno, that Gambia’s biggest talent has been lured away by Norway. Public reaction was one of cries of betrayal. To the nationalists, he lacked patriotism. Gambia Athletics Association received it all with consternation –shocked at being robbed of their brightest in the rough, a startling case of defection hence the peculiarity.

Photo: Saidy went on to become a key star for Norway

Being a wealthy nation, it turned out that Norway had swayed the African sensation with promise of a reported thousands of dollars per month – an astronomical amount even by the GAA’s standards whose yearly budget then was $15,000 and without subvention from a then dictatorial regime that was barely eight years in power.

Anger was etched on the faces of Gambian authorities in the wake of the story, coming only months after they’d helped put a young Saidy on a €1,200 every thirty days throughout his stint in Oslo, a sum facilitated as a scholarship through the local Olympic bureau in Bakau.

Capy is all familiar with the case and did not hold back when the discussion turned that direction.

‘He was given €1,200 every month. We negotiated the scholarship for him with the National Olympics Committee because he was not at a training camp while he was there in Norway. But he was not satisfied,’ his voice turning hoarse somewhat as he readjusted from his initial leaned position.

‘He (Jaysuma) came (back) to Gambia. He was even given (Norwegian) citizenship and arrived in the Gambia with it and told us he wanted to change (citizenship),’ he, said laying bare what transpired twelve years ago.

For rising 200m runner Saidy, it was a lifetime opportunity knocking on his doors – one that would avail him chance to train with state-of-the-earth equipment, a far cry from the near poor facilities he’d been used to in Bakau for years.

Fighting to Keep a Prized Possession

Moulding a top athlete is no tea party. For the GAA, it entails two phases: Organising competitions from across the country’s seven regions including hard-to-reach provincial areas then to the nationals and assisting set up inter-school races were talents are spotted, identified and reached out by GAA coaches often followed by invitation for trials. Out of these auditions, the chaff is separated from the wind –the performing sensations singled for further trainings.

Cash-strapped and with a very stretched budget to even fund administrative costs, a mandatory sum is kept aside by Gambia athletics and doled out to athletes as transport fares five times a week to ensure their presence for regular collective work-outs staged either at the slowly becoming dilapidated Chinese built 35,000 capacity-seater Bakau Independence Stadium or at the Serrekunda West mini-stadium whose facilities are this moment closed for renovations.

Photo: A picture of Jaysuma from the archives representing Gambia internationally

The only national stadium is, in some instances, not available to local athletes due to preference giving to community or national football who pay the facility manager for their events. These occurrences leave national athletes training ahead of international competitions with disrupted plans.

In a recent trend and as an alternative, a mechanism has been facilitated by Gambia Athletics (GAA) by attaching Gambian national athletes with neighbouring country Senegal’s athletic teams to avert any such incidents and help them keep their fitness levels. But that too has come with its hiccups amid rife reports Senegal is discreetly also approaching Gambian sprinters to run for them with promise of huge incentives much like Norway’s case with Jaysuma.

Considering all these rigours in building up an athlete, authorities at the athletics governing body were determined not to let go of their prized possession in Jaysuma Saidy without putting up a fight. In the scenarios that was and with money factoring in Norway’s bid to snatch their top wave-maker, deep down, GAA knew it was no longer a matter of ifs, rather one of when before they admit defeat. However, undeterred, they still put up some pockets of resistance.

Their first step and last resort was paying a visit to then President Yahya Jammeh –now exiled in Equatorial Guinea – whose influence they’d believed would impact on Saidy and talk him into discarding the idea of switching allegiance to Norway. Initial signs showed smidgen of hope before Jaysuma’s dramatic refusal threw spanner in the works of the GAA.

“Jaysuma took it and we tried to convince him but he was already given the Norwegian papers. We even tried arranging him to meet the former president Yahya Jammeh to see if he can find his own way of handling Jaysuma’s case maybe giving him money or something because Norway are a rich country and were giving him thousands of dollars as motivation which we (as an association) cannot afford. But Jaysuma did not want to meet the president,” Capy tells Foroyaa Sport in reminiscence of what transpired that day.

It’s a well shared parlance that money talks, in this case, it spoke volumes.

The rumpus that later ensued between the aforesaid 200m runner and the GAA including the Norwegian Athletics Federation president became a talking point. The reason? It was Gambia’s second case of defection after Alhaji Jeng who transferred to Sweden in 1999 amid hysteria on the side of local sports followers.

Norway’s Untold Tactic of Effecting Defection

Behind this high profile defection is a tale never told to the press, a behind the scene incident culminating into an additional name for the track star.

Jaysuma is known to national teammates in the Gambian squad as Jaysuma Saidy. To the shock of most though, an additional phrase was fused to his name which he has come to be known for as Jaysuma Saidy-Ndure.

Photo: Jaysuma, first from right, with Gambia’s relay team in 2001

The change bewildered the athletics family back in Banjul appearing to raise eyebrows. Inevitably, there were questions over how the Ndure popped up. A quick glance at his Wikipedia tells of a brief story of adoption. Our findings in national dossier of athletes though shows that he has at all times been, from get-set-go, registered as Jaysuma Saidy including numerous international competitions he had represented Gambia in.

‘We were all surprised when we saw Ndure in his name instead of what we used to know,’ Joof says, as it later emerged the Ndure surname emanated from an adopter of his based in Oslo who it’s said, was the cause of Jaysuma’s first trip to the Northern European nation.

Angry over the turn of events, the Gambia Athletics Association felt hard done by and reacted by blocking the starlet from competing internationally.

In the face of this ongoing drama, Saidy has sat out for over a year and a half without international competition. In the interim, the blockade failed to deter him from running domestically and did so in Norway’s nationals.

International rules, then, backed athletes to defect after three years without running for their land of origin globally. Norway had hoped to field Jaysuma in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics who was dominating headlines there but was being held by the ban.

Aware they risked losing out, the Scandinavian country reached out to their counterparts, Gambia’s athletic organ who were by then ceased by anger  at the loss of a ‘national treasure’ whom Norway is now calling to negotiate over his release.

Jerseys as Compensation and Unfulfilled Promises

Betwixt and between, Saidy-Ndure belonged to neither party at this juncture with his international future up in the balance. As with the modus operandi of rich nations, Norway laid down some promises to lure Gambia to a round table discussion as they eyed ending the deadlock. After hours of negotiations, an agreement was reached details of which shock most to this day, twelve years on.

It turned out there was no monetary offer, rather jerseys, tracksuits and other equipment were used as bait and compensation for the loss of an athlete then viewed as something of a ‘national hero,’ in the words of the GAA boss Fredloyd Evans at the time.

‘To actually naturalise to another country, you needed to stay for two years without running for your country then you can switch but he (Jaysuma) went ahead to naturalise.

Photo: Jaysuma (pictured on the right) running for Gambia just before he changed allegiance

“So we felt it wasn’t fair on us because we trained him to that level. So we blocked him (Jaysuma) and they (Norway) wanted us to negotiate. So we asked that they the Norwegian authorities compensate us.

“They gave us starting pistols, training shoes, spikes, high jump stand/bar, two long /triple jump boards, two high jump mattresses, kits, batons, relay stop-watches, two sets of track suits, starting blocks and other equipment.

“Those were our priorities at the time and additionally, the ones we had were sort of stolen and sold away as scrap metals.

“It was also part of the negotiation that we were to have an interchange of athletes programme; that is our athletes going there for training and theirs coming to us and train with us but all these were never fulfilled,” Capy Joof, a key member of the Gambian negotiating team says, opening up on the issue.

Exchanging a potential World-beater, as he was perceived during those years, with track suits and other gears, might stupefy most at how Gambia ended up brokering such an agreement.

Now a 35-year-old,Saidy-Ndure has gone on to hit some respectable heights on the globe, making top-three placings in the IAAF League and IAAF World Athletics Finals as well as a new national record time of 10.1seconds in the European all-time list.

Twelve years on, the rise of sudden budding talents for Gambia such as Adama Jammeh and Gina Bass has replaced whatever disenchantment Joof and his executives had over Ndure’s defection especially after then star-of-the-moment Suwaibou Sanneh went on to reach the semis of the London 2012 Olympics, an event Saidy failed to qualify for.

‘We do not regret seeing him go because some of the athletes in the camp were performing better,’ he says.

The Bakau-born athlete’s change of nationality came at a time when there was a considerable increase in the number of Africans switching allegiance to richer countries in Europe and Asia. A case in point is Saif Seaeed Shaheen who deserted Kenya for Qatar having been coaxed with a US$1m by the Peninsular Arab outfit plus an assured additional US$1,000 every thirty days for the rest of his life. The trend triggered thirty-nine other East African stars, all of Kenyan origin, into defecting to Asia and other Euro zone areas leading a then flummoxed Mawi Kibaki into making a public plea to athletes to refuse the temptation.

Overall, our independent investigation and statistics obtained from Transfers in Athletes show, the continent have lost 205 superstars to Europe and Asian wealthy nations from 1984 beginning from the time South Africa’s Sydney Maree and Zola Pieterse changed to the United States and Great Britain respectively and Ethiopia’s Asaf Bimro switched to Israel.

Seeing this talent-drain poses a threat, African countries have rallied behind through the IWF to fight off this endemic.

The success in this is African athletics national bodies could now force a suspension if a talent of theirs is being poached but only after they’d lodged a complaint to the IWF.

Photo: Jaysuma here represents Norway going up against Usain Bolt

“Right now, switching allegiance is not banned but is suspended for African athletes after a complaint filed. They (European country and Qatar will use our athletes (African athletes) and then dump them when they start doing well. We (African federations) don’t benefit from them. This is not only affecting Gambia, but the whole of Africa. That is why we are fighting this through the IWF. We definitely felt it (with our athletes switching allegiance), we feel cheated by these European and Arab countries,” Dodou Capy concludes.

Cheated, Gambia and the rest of Africa may feel, but the conundrum of talent-drain, according to pundits, will sadly keep occurring as long stars the continent continue to be attached to unprepossessing wages compared to the jaw-dropping sums thrown their way by Europe and its rich allies.

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