Sunday, March 24, 2013

Kenya ready to repeat its greatest World Cross Country triumph in Bydgoszcz today

The 40th IAAF World Cross Country Championships is upon us once again and the best long distance runners meet to decide who can conquer the hills, dales, mud and freezing conditions of Bydgoszcz, Poland with ease.

Cross country is often described as the backbone or heartbeat of athletics and the majority of the world’s top distance runners often served their apprenticeship in cross country before going on to excel in different events on the track and roads.

The World Cross Country Championships are often billed as the toughest footrace in the world pitting middle distance types against leading marathon runners. But despite this event offering great preparations and the subsequent springboard to further success on the track for athletes who participate in it, it has sadly lost its lustre.

Many European countries shy away from the event, hiding from the strong African competition and domination. This in turn has resulted in bleak media coverage globally and low popularity of the event forcing the IAAF to make it a biennial event. Some justification indeed!

That won’t matter to Kenya. This is our time to shine!

Kenya, as always, is a major factor at the championships having won 24 times in 39 years and is the most successful nation ever at these championships.

Coming from a year break from these global championships, the national team is relishing the chance to show that it is the premiere running nation in the world and will likely use this opportunity to prove that they have not lost much in the way of competitiveness.

The team has a nice blend of experience and youth featuring a slew of athletes who participated in Poland back in 2010 which includes two World Cross winners, Emily Chebet in the senior women’s race and defending junior champion Faith Chepngetich.

The Kenyan men will strive to reclaim the 12km title from Ethiopia and hopefully match their spectacular performance of 2010 where they won all titles on offer at the same venue in Bydgoszcz. With four debutants in the championships, it will be interesting to see if trials winner Philemon Rono can match Joseph Ebuya’s sterling performance of Bydgoszcz 2010 and rise to the occasion once again.

Only two women have successfully retained their junior crown in the history of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships and today in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Chepngetich will attempt to become the third. The19 year old defending champion seeks to replicate the achievements of her fellow countrywoman Viola Kibiwot, the 2001 and 2002 winner.
However, the biggest story today in Bydgoszcz will be the weather and course conditions. With the course covered in snow, mud and ice for days and sub zero temperatures expected, all eyes will be on who manages the treacherous conditions better than the others. History has proved that it isn’t always the athletes who have mastered wintry conditions that excel, rather the fittest athletes. If anything, it is the athletes who are lightest on the muddy course that will do well regardless of fitness.

Best of luck to the Kenyan team today as they seek to extend their streak of excellence in these championships.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Good communication skills increasingly becoming necessary for champion athletes

I‘m sure you’ve heard of many champion athletes who upon winning a race, utter statements that make you cringe not only at the content, but at the delivery of it all.  
Like this one.....

Being a superstar in sports does not come from winning alone. Being a champion in modern sports is being more than a winner as there are many elements needed to become a star. Top among them is great communication skills. The ability to speak confidently and articulate in public and more is a significant life skill. Effective communication for a sportsperson can mean the difference between a major sponsorship deal and none at all.

This is an area where our own athletes have not been particularly strong in. Despite being among the best in the world, the lack of strong communication skills has hindered many of our champion athletes’ stories from being heard.

Appropriate training (and even an English tutor) could make these high-class athletes more comfortable with dealing with reporters and reduce stress they may have about these kinds of interactions.

Of course there’s a easier way around this…speak in Kiswahili or in a native language and almost always a translator will be found to interpret on a often enhanced and articulate message. The Ethiopians, French, Spanish and other non English speaking athletes do it all the time.

As sports stars have the potential to influence the masses, how effectively they communicate can determine how relevant they become in the society. Kenya has had several Olympic champions in athletics but the ones that are still memorable to date are the ones that possessed strong interpersonal skills.

The media, fans, sponsors, and even other competitors are often curious of the process an athlete or player went through to achieve a win. It therefore becomes important that the story be told in an articulate and coherent manner so that everyone listening or reading can be drawn to it, language notwithstanding!

As a sports marketer, I want to see an athlete’s personality shine through in an interview and the consequential article. I love seeing athletes say something outside of the importance of executing their game plan, references to thanking God or the need to stay focused.

There are many benefits of being an effective communicator as a sportsperson. As they are constantly in the limelight, it enables them to increase their brand appeal to potential sponsors, improve the marketing opportunities, have an enhanced image and public perception, heightened self-confidence and comfort with the media.

However, the demands placed upon the modern sportsperson are numerous. They range from high public expectations, intense media scrutiny, the reality of being extensively quoted, misquoted, and quoted out of context, the dangers inherent in off-the-record comments, handling sensitive situations, performance issues to crisis’s arising from unfortunate comments.

The intensity and media scrutiny that accompany every word a sportsman says and posts online in the 24/7 news cycle, along with the explosion of social networking, has greatly affected the perception of professional athletes.  Reality is that controversial headlines sell papers and social networking posts can go viral -- and both can be devastating to teams, coaches and athletes /players.

These issues influence an athlete’s image with the public, relationship with teammates and coaches, and even family life. As well, handling success is often - though not always - easier than failure, and athletes are among the only professionals expected to undergo failure in public. Even more importantly, an athlete’s private behavior is often put on display for all to see.

As athletes mature and attain success, their visibility may bring promotional or sponsorship opportunities. Corporations look to associate their name, brand, or product with an athlete who projects a positive image. In my opinion, the one sports personality who best embodies this here in Kenya has been Paul Tergat. A true superstar, he is very articulate and brings a lot of credibility to whatever brand he endorses.

For most athletes, strong personal skills will be an absolute necessity in the years to come. In later years, athletes need to begin preparing for life— and a career— after sport. As a skill that can be learnt, I believe that having regular communications seminars for sports people will help them to build a range of vital skills that will take them beyond their life in sports. This might include mentoring, public speaking support, media skills development, job interview training, or interpersonal skills development. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

More effort needed to utilize our athletes as Brand Ambassadors

Kenya’s finest athletes are the country’s best ambassadors abroad and locally. Their successes along with tourism have made Kenya as one of the most famous nations in the world. However, there has been very little, if any, attempt to use this tremendous resource to market the country and its products.

It about time, I say. With sport a key element within the pillars of Vision 2030, government endorsement through Brand Kenya and the Kenya Tourism Board is essential for a deliberate and an integrated approach to many such leveraging opportunities.

In my experience as an athlete, such opportunities to promote Kenya as a destination were plenty. Generally, Kenyan athletes are quite friendly and social wherever they race. Given the number of visitors coming to see how our athletes live and train significantly increasing in recent times, shows that athletes have the power to influence a core segment of tourism in Kenya.

While the collective Kenyan athlete brand is strong and bankable globally, it has yet to trickle down on the individual athlete locally. The use of our celebrity athletes as endorsers in the local market has been nominal as the trend has been to utilize local musical artistes and models.

This is an untapped field for many corporate and government marketing agencies wishing to convey key messages through sport and rise above the clutter in the marketplace. Our athletes know how to win at the highest level and everyone can associate with a winner. Ironically, Kenya has lots of stars who’ve achieved hero status in other countries, but walk around the streets of our towns practically unrecognized.

With the country experiencing consumer growth and the fierce battle of the different brands for market share, the time for celebrity athlete endorsement has arrived.

Research shows that there have been a total of only 15 athletes who’ve ever endorsed any commercial products here in Kenya. Ever! Compare that to the countless world record holders, Olympic, World, Commonwealth and major marathon champions that we have produced.

Of course, not all champions have the personality or image to be associated with the different brands to be endorsed. There has to be an inherent match or congruency between the celebrity and the brand. But there are some  stars like David Rudisha that have wonderful personalities, brilliant smiles, are articulate and create attention through repeated successful performances on the track or road. They have the potential to increase sales and enhance brands by generating a lot of publicity and attention for our local companies and country.

One such athlete who has successfully endorsed products over the years is Paul Tergat. He conveys prestige, a good reputation and an image of excellence to whatever brand that he endorses.

Our athletes’ successes and popularity globally help shape perceptions of our great nation. We must then tap into this important element of our national identity to effectively promote our country and its products. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sports Act will bring in much needed change in Athletics Management

Recently Sports Minister Ababu Namwamba tore into Athletics Kenya (AK) Chairman Isaiah Kiplagat in a manner that the latter is never accustomed to.
The occasion was the ground-breaking of Lornah Kiplagat Sports Academy in Iten in Kiplagat’s (Isaiah) own Rift Valley Province. Very few people, including politicians, take on this man who has run athletics since the demise of Paul Boit in 1992.
He is known to tell the high and mighty “a few home truths”. Namwamba was reacting to Kiplagat’s statement on alleged mismanagement of funds meant for Stadium Management.
He did not know what hit him. The minister was not in a flattering mood and warned that the days of people managing sports bodies like their property was long gone with the enactment of the Act.
There seems a lot in store even though the minister will soon be leaving the scene after the General Election.
But if other warlords, who ride roughshod over competitors thought they were safe in their cocoons, that was a wake-up call that things would never be the same again.
This Sports Act has forever changed the manner sports management. Impunity had seeped into our fabric like cancer.
The Act gives the Cabinet secretary all the weaponry to deal with errant officials who ran their bodies like family shops.
Even though they escaped the two-term limitation on their tenure, it would be presumptuous to uncork the champagne just yet.
“Some of them know one year in advance that they would be re-elected to their federations,” said the minister.
That statement was telling, especially for AK whose elections are due next month. Although Kiplagat has not declared he would defend his seat, which he has said previously he is not keen on defending, it’s assumed he would.
Many association heads conduct their elections in so opaque manner that it defeats the whole purpose of elections.
They sneak in rules that tilt the playing field in favour of incumbents, while making it impossible for their challengers to get elected.
The minister said to the gleeful approval of the public, that the Act has landed him a revolver and he is waiting to cock it.
Whether CORD or Jubilee wins the forthcoming elections, Namwamba should return as Cabinet Secretary for Youth and Sports to continue cleaning sports management.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

10 Things to Look Out for in 2013

Happy New Year to all readers of this column! 2013 brings with it great hope and high expectations for Kenyan athletics coming from a less than stellar 2012.
Here is a list of 10 things we can look forward to this year in Kenyan athletics.

1.    As Pamela Jelimo proved to the world in 2008, you can bet on a complete upstart to emerge from Kenya and become a world beater. This year will not be any different. You can be sure that we will be celebrating new talent by the end of the season.

2.    After having one of the most remarkable seasons ever for a Kenyan female athlete, David Rudisha looks set to continue his dominance in the 800 meters. Even with the highly motivated young stars chasing after him year, look forward to another tremendous season by Rudisha.

3.    World marathon domination. Kenyans will continue to dominate major city marathons around the world as running standards will rise. After an unbelievable season of some incredibly fast times in the marathon by Kenyan men this year, the world record could be broken once again given the highly competitive nature of that event.

4.    A strong performance by the Kenyan team at the Moscow World Championships in August. After the highly successful Daegu World Championships in 2011 and the Beijing Games in 2008 both in Asia, high standards have been set at these Championships with 6 gold medals and 15 total medals the minimum expectation level.

5.    Renewed challenges from our Ethiopian neighbours and other African born athletes in the long distance track races. A resurgent Bekele in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres will be tough to beat along with Mo Farah and Bernard Lagat who pose the greatest threat to Kenya’s path to the Moscow World Championship podium.

6.    Continued success for women on the track. Pamela Jelimo and Nancy Lagat’s success at the Beijing Olympics was inspired by Janeth Jepkosgei’s Osaka’s exploits and will open the floodgates for more women to follow in their footsteps across all events.

7.    More celebratory dances by our athletes like the “Kemboi dance” at the Daegu World Championships and the London Olympics. Some unique dance moves and some showmanship by our athletes after victory can immortalize an athlete even more than the race itself.

8.    An exciting cross country season. With the only major event of the season, the World Cross Country Championships back on after turning biennial, consequently, cross country is now a major focus this year.

9.    For local athletics fans, the centerpiece of the season is the World Championships Trials at Nyayo Stadium at the end of June. The world’s best athletes will fight for selection to compete in the Moscow World Championships. One of the most competitive trials in the world!

10. A new constitution and elections for Athletics Kenya. Hopefully, a fresh professional set of leaders and a new dispensation to guide the most successful sport in this country. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Analysis of Kenyan Athletics in 2012

As we bid farewell to 2012, its time for an in-depth analysis of Athletics in Kenya for the year. It has been another fantastic year in terms of performances from the athletes who enabled Kenya sustain its good name as one of the top Athletics nations in the world. However, it’s also important to have a critical look at the decisions, policies and events that helped shape the athletics year.

So here’s my perspective on the positive and negative aspects of the athletics year.
One of the best things to happen this year was the Government’s initiative to reward medal winning athletes with significant cash prizes. It was a tremendous pat on the back for the winners and a motivational tool for future winners.

The highlight of the year was David Rudisha breaking the world record and winning gold in the London Olympics in what was regarded as the performance of the Games.

Elite and upcoming athletes benefited from a major workshop to educate them on the importance of financial planning and media training and to help them deal with the challenges of professional athletics.

Major sponsorships for local athletics events  by local conglomerates  were much appreciated. However, more sponsorships and promotions were needed to market many of the athletics events, as there were tremendous opportunities in supporting events in which some of the best athletes in the world are vying for spots for major championships.

Having said that, there were many other events organized by athletes both past and present, individuals and corporations to raise awareness for different causes that were enthusiastically supported by local sponsors. Some examples of this included the Standard Chartered Marathon, the Tecla Loroupe Peace Run, and the Lewa Marathon.

However, the biggest disappointment was the performance of Kenya's athletes at the London Olympics. Coming from a high in Daegu in 2011, Many had high expectations for Kenya to replicate its success at the highest level but disappointingly left London with only 2 Gold.

AK’s policy to issue invitations to only top athletes to the trials was discouraging the development of young athletes looking to break into the elite ranks.
The policy to select the first 2 automatically and the third by committee, has brought about many suspicions and frustrations.

Case in point, AK's new thinking of taking 15 10,000 meters athletes for selection at the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon didn't produce any results at the London Olympics. Furthermore that mini trials locked out new and upcoming athletes from trying their luck at making the team.
Other weaknesses were the lack of technical expertise availed to athletes and coaches in the sprints and field events. There was also a deficiency of developmental programs to nurture talent of young sprinters.

Despite all the weaknesses, the future of Kenyan athletics looks bright and I am looking forward to another exciting year with a new set of challenges.

Best wishes for the New Year!

Monday, December 17, 2012

The unparalleled success of Kenya's junior girls in athletics

If there's anything as a sure thing in Kenyan Athletics then is is the success of junior girls in cross country.

 Theirs is a rich history of supremacy at that level. Tracing their performance from the early 90’s, our junior women have won the World Championships title twelve times, and recorded a perfect score twice. Despite the early promise, few have posted significant senior international results. It is surprising to see that since 1991, only three Kenyan girls who won junior world cross-country medals duplicated their feat at the senior level. 

During those years, Kenya's junior girls’ cross-country team won 28 world-championship medals. This contrasted to the senior level, which has double the medal opportunities, and won only 14.

One of the major stumbling blocks facing talented Kenyan junior female runners is a lack of continuity. Many of them excel in local and international championships but soon fizzle out, leaving athletics followers wondering why they cannot maintain their consistency at senior level.

Exactly what holds back so many girls is up for debate.  A number of factors have been cited, among them the maturity of girls’ to young women, the lack of professional guidance on diet and weight issues. There are also formidable cultural and social obstacles to be negotiated. Some get married at a young age and may consequently stop competing. Some undertake too many time-consuming obligations to train effectively while others fall victim to peer pressure.

Prize money, despite its potential for good, can also pose a problem as it can motivate girls to compete before they are quite ready and thus burn out. Unable to see past a new roof or an extra acre of land, some girls, and their families, focus on the present gains at the expense of their future athletic careers.

Worse still, this pursuit of the money sometimes causes girls to neglect their education. This is sad because if they get injured or pregnant, or simply lose interest in the sport, they have nothing to fall back on. It is impossible to know how many promising careers have been derailed by such problems as the situation is not discussed openly.
Amazingly, our young girls do not lack for good role models. For Lorna Kiplagat, Catherine Ndereba, Tegla Lorupe, Susan Sirma, Margaret Okayo and Vivian Cheruiyot have set standards for which the juniors can follow and look up to.

Despite Athletics Kenya having a budget to deal with youth development, they have done nothing to assist and develop our super youngsters. It has been left to pioneers like Lorna Kiplagat who  set up the first high altitude training camp for women in Africa. She has invested her prize money into alleviating the problems faced by girls looking for suitable residential camps and developing the next generation of female athletes. It is an investment that is beginning to pay off in ways likely to improve Kenyan society at large.

But we need to take it a step further from Lorna’s initiative if we are to continue to enjoy success at the junior level. A possible solution would be to start a sports academy, partnered with a major sponsor or sporting organization, for talented junior athletes where they combine academics and athletics. Students with exceptional running ability can be admitted on scholarship where they would get a solid education, but also get a chance to develop and focus on athletics with the best facilities and coaching that the country can provide. 

This way, our girls would be able to compete with and beat the Ethiopian women who, currently, are a standard above us. I’m sure Faith Chepngetich and Nancy Chepkemoi our two outstanding junior runners, can benefit from a project such as this and go on to be future World and Olympic champions.