Sunday, January 23, 2011

Show me the money - the pursuit of professionalism in Kenyan athletics

Fancy this as a day job? Running hill repeats at Singore forest, near Iten

Iten is for Kenyan runners what Los Angeles is for aspiring actors and actresses - a chance to make the big time.

If you are good enough to make it as a professional runner, then you stand to be rewarded with the glory, fame and cash that comes with success. But very few will succeed.

There are a select few runners here who have lucrative sponsorship deals and/or make big money from winning races in Europe and the US. These athletes are heroes in Kenya. Their photos and stories dominate the main sports page of the Sunday newspaper.

Many of these successful athletes have bought property and built nice houses in the area. Their lives differ significantly from the average Kenyan. You can tell who they are, because they wear the latest Adidas kit and drive a motor vehicle (while the regular punters ride the matatu). The successful professional runners occupy a high social standing in the community.

Lornah Kipligat is one example of an athlete who has invested her winnings in a business venture (Lornah's high altitude training camp). Another example is the former Dublin Marathon winner, Lezan Kumutai, who has invested in residential property and has also built a school in a small village close to Iten.

But most runners that you meet on the street in Iten have very little money or income, and are just getting by day by day (not that they need much money to support their regimented lifestyles). They live in basic rented shared houses with groups of other runners, all sharing the same goal. These runners are vying to be noticed by someone who might launch their career.

In order to make a living out of running, an athlete needs to either gain a spot on the Kenyan international squad (and hopefully pick up a big sponsor); or find a way to get to races in Europe. Specifically, those races that offer an attractive prize package and ideally an appearance fee.

However, runners face a catch-22 because they need to train full time in order to get good enough. Yet if they train full time, then they have no income to cover their cost of living in the meantime.

This is where talent scouts, agents, and training camps come into the picture. Some athletes are good enough and lucky enough to be scouted as juniors. Those who show the most promise (i.e. by winning national medals), may be noticed by scouts and coaches and offered places in training camps, where they are given food and accommodation. This means that they can focus entirely on training, from the time they finish school.

It's an early start for professional runners in Iten - 6am is rush hour for foot traffic

But very few are so lucky. And those who do find themselves in that privileged position are expected to continue performing in order to justify their place. For every one of these supported runners, there are many who are largely unsupported. Perhaps relying on their families for assistance. Let's call these the 'tier two' runners.

These tier two runners are battling to perform well enough to capture the attention of agents. For example, I have spoken to a 2:15 marathoner living in Iten who is struggling to get by because he can't find an agent who will fund his travel to races (because he's not quick enough to guarantee a good commission for a prospective agent). Like many others, he doesn't have the cash to get there himself. And he needs someone to organise transport and negotiate appearance fee with the race organiser.

By way of another example, I am told that a male 5000m runner won't be noticed unless he runs under 13:15. That gives you an idea of the standard required to make it as a professional.

The cost of failure is massive for these runners. Not only does it mean giving up the dream of fame and fortune, but also swallowing one's pride and returning to your hometown with your tail between your legs and perhaps being branded as a 'failure'. It is quite likely that you'll end up working on the family farm, operating a kiosk, or driving a matatu for a modest living. For an aspiring runner here, these prospects are fairly grim.

Most people here live very simple lives, particularly compared with the lifestyle of a successful professional runner. For example, the appearance fee earned by successful Kenyan runners in some European races would easily exceed the average annual wage in Kenya.

There is clearly an affinity between the people of Kenya and the sport of running. After all, it's not often in Dublin that groups of laughing children will sprint across a field to greet you and then run along beside you for several minutes (let alone the man dressed in a business suit who ran with me for ten minutes after I jogged past him the other night).

However, the reality is that, unlike the millions of amateur adult runners in western countries who run purely for the love of it, many of the runners here are simply trying to achieve a higher standard of living than what is available through other avenues.

Perhaps people read too much into the 'genetic advantage of African runners' theory. It seems to me that the financial motive for Kenyan athletes, combined with the undesirable alternative (a subsistence lifestyle), is part of the driving force behind the success of Kenyan running. With the sheer number of athletes dedicating their lives to running, it's little surprise that countries like Kenya and Ethiopia keep churning out champions.

Just a thought: imagine if your next pay-check (and indeed your livelihood) depended on your race performance. Now that is an incentive to train hard!


Under the Radar said...

Jase did you bring a video camera by any chance?

Cris said...
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