Administrative ineptitude threatens to hobble Kenya's track and field athletes

Kenyan-born Ruth Jebet, just 19, waves the Bahraini flag after winning gold over Kenyan competitors at the Rio Olympics. Reuters/Dominic Ebenbichler

Kenya emerged as the top African nation on the Rio Olympics medal table thanks to its track and field team. But the country’s continued international success has masked serious management lapses. Wycliffe W. Njororai Simiyu explains that these are to blame for the steady exodus of athletes to other countries.

What ails track and field management in Kenya?

Track and field as a sport has contributed most to the positive global image of Kenya as a sporting super power. This was quite evident in the World Athletics Championships in 2015 when against all odds, Kenya emerged as the number one nation ahead of the US, Jamaica, Great Britain, Germany and Russia, among others.

At the Rio Olympics Kenya came second only to the US in track and field medal rankings. In fact, it was only track and field athletes who contributed to Kenya’s medal haul and its 15th place overall on the rankings table.

But this success hides inefficiencies and errors – both of omission and commission – by the administrators who run Kenya’s track and field programmes.

These include:

  • a poor leadership structure that sees the same people retain a grip on their positions. This cuts out new and fresh ideas to propel the sport forward;

  • a growing prevalence of accusations of corruption in selecting athletes for international assignments;

  • a lack of proactive action on doping control and education. This has seen many athletes failing drug tests or failing to appear for testing;

  • the absence of a proper monetary compensation structure for athletes who represent the country in international competitions;

  • instability at the secretariat, which is the nerve centre for any successful organisation; and,

  • poor management of sponsorship contracts and the resources meant for developing the sport. There’s also a lack of support for the other organisations that identify, nurture and provide the young talent such as schools, colleges and universities.

Is Kenya in danger of losing its reputation for talent and hard work?

It is not easy for Kenya to completely lose its reputation as the source of athletic talent. Given the rewards that the emerging athletes earn from their effort, the pipeline of talent will continue. The biggest threat to Kenya’s reputation is the desire to use drugs in an atmosphere of fierce internal competitiveness. The federation has to be extremely diligent in handling doping tests. This must go hand in hand with education.

The consequences of not doing so are severe: Kenya could, in future, find itself suspended from international competitions. This would not be without precedent given Russia’s ongoing tribulations.

What should be done to prevent further damage to Kenya’s image?

The good performance at the Rio Olympics has made up for the negative publicity over doping control procedures and the absence of the required law. All efforts should be geared to avoid crossing swords with the world anti-doping agency.

Is poor management partly to blame for the exodus of athletes from Kenya to other countries?

Certainly, and the greatest obstacle is poor administration. Poor and potentially embarrassing administrative lapses were evident before and during the Rio Olympics:

  • two track and field officials were expelled from the Games over claims of doping;

  • an administrative lapse saw the world javelin champion without an air ticket to the Games – where he eventually won a silver medal;

  • a sprinter with dual citizenship was almost disqualified for initially being accredited using a US passport rather than a Kenyan one, and;

  • part of the official kit went missing and athletes had to do with the bare minimum.

All these lapses and the shenanigans that occur during team selection for international competitions are quite frustrating, especially for up and coming athletes.

The principal avenue for a young athlete to make a breakthrough is by winning selection to the national team or getting a ticket to an international meeting. When these opportunities are uncertain, some athletes have turned to looking for alternative nations desperate for the global recognition sports champions bring.

The other push factor for Kenyan athletes is the sheer number of talented runners jostling for limited opportunities at home. Rules restrict the number of entrants to compete for a nation at most international events, normally to a maximum of three. Such restrictions offer only the best a guarantee of making it into the team.

These factors have contributed to some athletes choosing to run for other countries.

What are some of the other factors attracting Kenyan athletes away from the country?

I discuss these other factors in detail in my research. Certainly, the countries they move to offer better monetary compensation. These include Bahrain, Qatar, the US, France and the Netherlands. For athletes, whose work-life span is very short, generous compensations outweigh any risks of moving abroad.

Also the right to dual citizenship allows an athlete to run for another country and still have access to all the privileges of being a Kenyan citizen. Most runners who end up in the Middle East do it for short-term monetary benefit.

But those who seek opportunities in Western countries such as the US, France, and the Netherlands do it for longer term goals such as uplifting their families.

Other benefits, attractive especially for young athletes, include the ease with which they are selected to run in global competitions. This translates to guaranteed monetary rewards. Many get more freedom to choose where to train and live. They therefore end up running for a foreign country but continue to live, train and invest in Kenya.

The Conversation

Wycliffe W. Njororai Simiyu does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.