Sports Big Business For Us But We Are Losing It
I think I’m a convert, a very recent one. No, not to religion, but to the Olympics. I blame the friend who made me watch the opening ceremony, and then I went on to watch some of the athletics. Seeing Tirunesh Dibaba pull away on the last lap of her 10,000m victory was breath taking. Steeplechase, nerve wracking (What if they fall??). I rooted for the Kenyans, and then the East Africans but in the end, it was always the individual’s achievements that utterly impressed me. It must be such an unimaginably tough slog to train to this level, with all the commitment required, that I stopped caring about nationalities.
Expectations for Kenya were huge and, ultimately, weren’t all met. So far, Kemboi and Rudisha stood out amazingly (and hey: if you wish to celebrate Olympic gold by taking off your shirt and jumping a man – please proceed. Be my guest. It’s Olympic gold). Many other races disappointed the Focus Group aka Facebook friends. Kenya and Ethiopia are known for their world-class long-distance runners, but whatever is the winning factor – Genetics? Being used to running long distances at high altitude from childhood? Ugali? Any combination thereof? – is apparently no longer a guarantee for a win.
When Mo Farah, an ethnic Somali, won the 10,000m for Great Britain, many were quick to claim him for Africa, and for East Africa. But right behind him, earning silver, was his US American, mzungu-pale training partner Galen Rupp. Part of the Focus Group was upset: how is it even possible that a white American would beat the Kenyans at what was considered their game?
An ESPN article, ‘How fast can Galen Rupp go?’, cites Rupp’s coach, Alberto Salazar: ‘In the Olympic 10,000, after 24 laps of covering surges and dodging elbows, the winner is going to have to run the last 400 in about 52 seconds. In the past, the only athletes who could finish that fast were born in East Africa.’ But after Rupp beat Kenyan Bernard Lagat in the 2012 US Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon, the author writes: ‘Rupp has just proved that, rather than an innate trait possessed exclusively by East Africans, world-class finishing speed is a skill that perceptive coaches anywhere can teach and talented athletes of any nation can master.’
This is, the author says, thanks to his coach: ‘The training regimen reflects Salazar's almost Ahab-like quest to determine the perfect running form and close the speed gap. Over the past dozen years, he has devised a maverick training system, with Rupp as his cardinal pupil, based on building core strength and muscular explosiveness.’
So, given the recent mixed record of Kenya’s athletes, maybe it’s time to supplement the innate East African running talent with a more systematic approach to training? In the Nation, Elias Makori writes about ‘pre-games tension between the National Olympic Committee of Kenya and Athletics Kenya (that have) thrown Kenya’s campaign to the dogs. (…)We raised the flag when a dozen officials from Kenya’s Olympics management team literally abandoned athletes to rush to a pre-season camp in Bristol that meant little in terms of quality preparations, especially for distance runners (…)where the recalcitrant NOCK officials set up camp merely to rake in their $300-a-day allowances.’
He speaks of incompetent support for athletes, squabbling, joy riders, and incompetent distribution of training and competition kits. And this was just in the UK: ‘The issue of pre-games training, lack of focus by AK’s top management and the absence of personalised training for our athletes are issues we will tackle another day’ – never mind the ‘similar mismanagement of the Kenyan team at the last All Africa Games in Maputo where the same officials are implicated.’
In his opinion piece, ‘We don’t deserve Olympics glory’, Charles Onyango Obbo argues: ‘East African athletes ran too much throughout the year, and they arrived at the Olympics too exhausted, and no match for the more rested top athletes from other countries. African athletes make most of their money on the tracks and roads running long distance races. Someone like Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, or Britain’s heptathlon hero Jessica Ennis make the bulk of theirs from endorsements (advertising products). (…)Yet we expect our athletes to go and run for us without being paid, and our footballers to leave their European clubs that pay their wages, buy their own tickets, and come and play for their nations for free – without even demanding a refund of their tickets. East African countries haven’t done enough for their sportsmen and women to deserve Olympic glory. Finally, it seems, the athletes are wisening up – and looking after their wallets and stomachs first.’
This reminds me of so many areas where Kenya has all the potential to be amazing, utterly amazing, and gets pulled down by incompetent, corrupt institutions. At this level, sports is business. And it could be big business for Kenya, so needs to be treated as a business. This morning, I read that Prime Minister Raila Odinga had told the Financial Times that Kenya would bid for the 2024 Olympics, citing the ‘psychological boost as well as "enormous benefits" in terms of investment in infrastructure’ that it would bring. Maybe start with the basics first?