‘We are treated like sporting slaves’: Ethiopian lifts lid on trade in athletes

Lily Abdullayeva was persuaded to switch her allegiance from Ethiopia to Azerbaijan in 2009: ‘They promised me a good salary, a house and expensive cars if I won races. But I never received any.’
Photograph: ARD

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.

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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.”

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