Athletics Kenya’s selection of the marathon team for the 21st edition of Commonwealth Games due in Gold Coast, Australia this April has elicited mixed reactions from the country’s sporting fraternity.
On-form runners are nowhere near the team yet the three veterans named to fly Kenya’s flag at the games are deemed in many quarters to be past their golden era, and therefore not best suited to represent a country teeming with hundreds of ambitious, talented and committed young athletes doting training camps around the country’s famed high altitude zones.
Kenya bears marathon big hitters including Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge, world champion Geoffrey Kirui, New York Marathon champion Geoffrey Kamworor, three of recent record breakers including current holder Dennis Kimeto, Wilson Kipsang and Patrick Makau in addition to myriads other big city marathon conquerors.
It was therefore, a surprise to some but not to insiders to find none of the globally acclaimed names in the Commonwealth marathon men’s team. In their stead, three veterans compose the Gold Coast troupe, two (Kenneth Mburu and Julius Karinga) well into their 40s while Nicholas Kamakya celebrated his 33rd birthday on January 1.
By Kenyan standards, the trio has little to show for their vast road racing careers but credit to them for having been tenacious in their grind spanning decades winning what in Kenya are negligible titles.
All the same, they got the nod from Athletics Kenya panel of selectors, being the most qualified from a small pool of applicants for Commonwealth Games marathon team. Stardust names gave the impending sporting jamboree a wide berth in spite of numerous calls from Riadha House.
A good number excused themselves on account of having pre contracts with organisers of other marathons close to and just after the Club Games, raising the question: Is Commonwealth Games that unattractive?
“We informed all marathoners about the rules and timelines for applications but their response was not very positive. Throughout last year, we gave them several reminders but after the deadlines for registration we had no choice but to work with those interested. I’m sure the technical committee did a good job and the athletes will perform well.
They may not be the most popular but they are professional runners with capabilities of winning medals in Gold Coast,” Athletics Kenya vice president and head of competitions committee Paul Mutwii said, while endorsing the selection.
Money over medals Marathon is the most lucrative discipline of athletics and most runners compete on the tracks seeking to toughen up then head to the roads for the huge prize kitties.
Not long ago, Kipchoge, Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele all plied their trades on the tracks but shifted to marathon for its vast windfall. Close to a third of Kenya’s 6,000 registered athletes are road-runners, most unknown and without agents but striving morning and evening on dusty roads training to get noticed and subsequently earn their living.
If they eke their names into history by breaking records known or unknown to them while on this survival street, that is a bonus and larger take-home kitty. Virtually all, big cities host charity road races offering hefty returns for elite runners whose names, accolades and participation are harnessed to draw in thousands of paying fun runners.
Elite runners in major marathons average less than 20 in number and run timed races in case they break existing course, regional or world records. Big names attract bigger purses in appearance fees whilst still vying for winners’ prizes usually paid in thousands of dollars.
Appearance fees for athletes vary depending on accolades and negotiations between athletes’ managers and race organisers. Global Sports Communication would for instance bargain for more from London Marathon organisers for Kipchoge to run in the British capital as opposed to an athlete who holds no title.
That is largely due to Kipchoge’s high standing as Olympic marathon gold medalist. World champion Kirui equally digs for better remuneration owing to his stature. Both Kirui and Kipchoge triumphed against global opposition and therefore command most respect.
A Commonwealth marathon title however, holds lesser standing in the eyes of race organisers and therefore does not fetch much in appearance fees. This is hugely owing to the fact that Commonwealth encompasses less than a quarter of the world’s states. Epic duels are mostly unheard of in this quadrennial jamboree with traditional marathon rivals like Ethiopia, USA and Japan not involved.
Commonwealth is an intergovernmental organisation composed of 52 states that are mostly former territories of the British Empire. Besides Uganda which has only recently come of age in distance running, Kipchoge, Kipsang, Kirui and any other big shots from Kenya who decides to head to Commonwealth would thereby be competing with runners from St Kitts & Nevis, Barbados, India, Guyana, Bermuda, St Helena, Seychelles, Swaziland, Vanuatu and Tonga.
This is hardly motivating. Australia which ranks top in the Commonwealth Games medal tally is 11th in Summer Olympics and 17th in IAAF World Championships. England, second in the Club Games’ medal table needs Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland to rank third and sixth in Summer Olympics and World Championships under the banner of Great Britain.
Add to the fact that monetary gains from winning medals at the Club Games is negligible and you realise why it is unattractive to Kenyan professional athletes and those seeking a way out of grass to the grace promised by thousands of road races taking place elsewhere.
“Priorities are different for sets of athletes and that informs their participation in races. While sprinters and middle distance runners would be happy to go to Gold Coast, marathoners have a different view of it. The majors are ongoing and they fetch quite huge winning prizes.
There are equally big races that fall out of marathon majors but still pay well,” an international athlete who has donned Kenya’s red vest but opted out of Gold Coast told PD Wikendi.
The year 2018 is light on athletics Championships but marathon runners prefer to pursue other races than “waste away” at Commonwealth.
Running 42.195km is equally exhaustive and takes up weeks in recovery and more weeks to regain fitness and strength to run another gruelling distance. Sentiments by Kenyan athletes concerning Commonwealth is increasingly shared by athletes from elsewhere and massively negating the essence of this supposedly close-knit organisation and contributing to diminishing popularity of the Club Games.
In the age of fast-changing trends and given the “shortfalls” of Commonwealth, the organisers ought to device means to revamp the fast fading Games. Improved winning prizes for instance, would rope in a vast number. Stringent qualification marks would massively give it a sporting boost and raise it’s stature in the sporting world.