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(News Focus) Athletics community divided over Kenyan-born marathoner representing S. Korea

All Headlines 15:34 June 25, 2015

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, June 25 (Yonhap) -- The athletics community is divided over having a Kenyan-born marathoner running for South Korea at an Olympics as a naturalized citizen, unable to agree on the potential impact the move will have on the sport's long-term future.

Wilson Loyanae Erupe, a 26-year-old from Kenya, arrived in South Korea on Tuesday to join an athletics club run by the Cheongyang County Office in South Chungcheong Province.

He plans to enter the 2015 Gyeongju International Marathon on Oct. 11 in Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, and he will start taking steps to obtain his South Korean passport afterward.

The Korean Association of Athletics Federations will write a letter of recommendation for Erupe, and the Korean Olympic Committee will review the application.

The KAAF believes Erupe can help make South Korea more competitive in the marathon, and he brings a solid track record.

Erupe has run in four international marathons, all of them in South Korea. He won the 2011 Gyeongju International Marathon in 2:09:23 and took the 2012 Seoul International Marathon in 2:05:37, the fastest time ever in the event.

After defending his Gyeongju title in 2012, Erupe also won this year's Seoul International Marathon in 2:06:11.

His personal best of 2:05:37 is nearly two minutes faster than the South Korean record of 2:07:20, set by former Olympic silver medalist Lee Bong-ju in 2000.

"I'd like to become a South Korean citizen," he told reporters upon arriving here. "My goal is to win the gold medal for South Korea at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. I'd be really happy to become a South Korean, but I'd be even happier if I win the Olympic gold."

Sports officials agree that getting the passport won't be much of a hurdle for Erupe, who has already given himself a South Korean name "Oh Joo-han," which is translated as "I run for Korea."

When it comes to Erupe's possible national team selection though, it seems to be an entirely different matter.

One athletics official, who declined to be identified, said, while the sport's administrators support Erupe's selection to the national team, coaches tend to be against the move.

The official explained that the opponents would rather see homegrown runners try to revive the once-proud marathon tradition in the country rather than foreign-born athletes.

South Korea produced marathon medalists in back-to-back Olympics in the 1990s. Hwang Young-cho won the gold medal at the 1992 Games in Barcelona, while Lee took the silver by three seconds at the following Olympics in Atlanta. In between, Hwang also won the Asian Games gold in 1994 in Hiroshima.

Those glories are a distant memory. No South Korean has even gone under the 2:10:00 mark since Jeong Jin-hyeok's 2:09:28 in 2011.

And this is where the proponents of Erupe's selection see the need for a shot in the arm, an infusion of fresh blood -- be it South Korean or African.

"Our marathon has really stagnated for years," the official said. "And I am sure Erupe will have a positive impact on the sport."

If South Korea picks Erupe for the national team, the country will follow in the footsteps of other Asian nations -- mostly the oil-rich ones in the Middle East -- who have naturalized African-born athletes. To wit: Femi Ogunode, who was born in Nigeria but now represents Qatar, set the Asian record in the men's 100 meters with the time of 9.91 seconds at the Asian Athletics Championships on June 4. He shed 0.02 second from his own Asian record, set at the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea's Incheon.

Only one Asian-born sprinter, Su Bingtian of China, has run the 100 meters under 10 seconds, having clocked 9.99 on May 31.

More examples can be found right at home. Dang Ye-seo, born in China, won a table tennis bronze medal in the women's team event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She is the first naturalized South Korean citizen to win an Olympic medal.

In men's hockey, three Canadian-born and one American-born players have obtained South Korean passports, and they will likely play for South Korea when it makes its Winter Olympics debut at the 2018 competition on home ice in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province.

Count Jim Paek, head coach of the men's hockey team, as among those skeptical about the positive impact of taking naturalized athletes to the Olympics. In an earlier interview with Yonhap News Agency, Paek said even though having foreign-born players can help South Korea immediately, he'd still like to develop homegrown talent for the future.

The conundrum that Paek faces may apply to other sports. Foreign-born athletes can raise the standard of play and push South Koreans to greater heights, but the imports can also take away opportunities for the Korean-born athletes to play and develop.

Chang Dal-young, a sports columnist and an attorney for local law firm APEX, said foreign-born athletes who are fast-tracked to South Korean citizenship will also face some public backlash.

"If we give foreign nationals South Korean passports with the Olympics or other international competitions on the horizon, then fans will view them merely as hired guns asked to provide quick results," Chang said. "Skeptics won't necessarily see them as athletes representing the country. Also, as we receive more foreign-born athletes, we need to review and tighten processes for national team selection."

Under the current set of rules guiding national teams, Erupe won't be eligible for the 2016 Summer Olympics. He failed an out-of-competition doping test in 2012 and received a two-year ban from the International Association of Athletics Federations in early 2013.

He returned to competition earlier this year, but under the KOC rules, an athlete who has served a doping ban is ineligible for any national team for three years following the end of the suspension.

It's the same rule that has affected the future of former Olympic swimming champ Park Tae-hwan, who will remain suspended until March next year after failing a doping test last fall.

Some in the legal community say the KOC rule is a measure of double punishment, similar to the now-annulled "Osaka Rule."

Originally adopted by the International Olympic Committee in 2008, the Osaka Rule barred athletes who had served a doping-related suspension for at least half a year from competing at the following Olympic Games.

In 2011, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the world's highest sports tribunal, ruled that the Osaka Rule was "a violation of the IOC's own Statute and is therefore invalid and unenforceable."

The KOC, however, has already said it doesn't plan on amending the rule anytime soon. It hasn't budged for Park, a national icon and the first South Korean to win an Olympic swimming medal, and it likely won't make any move for Erupe.

Oh Chang-seok, a former men's national marathon coach who now acts as an agent for Erupe, thinks he believes Erupe can still be competitive for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Oh blamed a malaria vaccine that Erupe received on a bus in Kenya for the positive test and said the athlete is squeaky clean now.

"If he had taken illegal substances on purpose, he wouldn't have posted such a good record after missing two years," said Oh, professor in the department of sports science at Baekseok University in Cheonan, South Chungcheong Province. "He's clean, and he has statements from Kenyan doctors to back it up."

Erupe, who called his positive doping test "unfortunate," said he trained hard during his suspension.

"While training and competing in South Korea, I had a good impression of the country and its people," Erupe said. "I hope to become a South Korean citizen and help marathon here."


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