Kenya's prime Minister, Hon. Raila Odinga visits the Run with Kenyans booth at an exhibitions during the 2011 Bosotn Marathon. Pic FILE/RUN WITH KENYANS
By Wilson Wahome Kiriungi, Founder/CEO
RUN with KENYANS
Posted: April 4, 2012 :
BOSTON, Mass., _There may be all the excitement about Kenya having struck oil, but as for gold, we struck it in the summer of 1968 when Kipchoge Keino won the Olympic title in 1,500 meters in Mexico.
It is believed that Keino’s trailblazing performance is what ushered in an era of total domination by Kenya in distance running such as the world had never seen before. And our runners are only getting better.
Kenya doesn’t need to mine for gold; we can always count on our runners to bring it home to us.
Last year was perhaps the most exciting year yet in the history of marathon races—and it was all about Kenyan runners.
New course records were set in all the five World Marathon Majors: Berlin, Boston, London, and New York City; and, incredibly, all the records were set by Kenyan runners. Patrick Makau took Berlin, also setting a new world record; Geoffrey Mutai set new course records in both Boston and New York City; and Emmanuel Mutai ran the fastest time in the London Marathon.
In Boston, Geoffrey Mutai’s and Caroline Kilel’s wins in 2011 completed a 20-year run of a Kenyan winning the Boston Marathon. Even more staggering is the fact that the top 20 marathon times in 2011 were ran by Kenyan runners!
Yet, as exciting as last year was, 2012 is the year of the Olympics and, even before the torch gets lit in London later this year, the action would have already begun in the early marathons in London and Boston, races which Athletics Kenya will be using to fill the Kenyan Olympic team. It doesn’t seem as if the supremacy of Kenya in distance running is about to be challenged any time soon.
Unfortunately, even as our runners continue to shine, Kenya is missing out on some crucial benefits that could be derived from being known as the world’s athletic powerhouse—the Mecca of distance running.
We are yet to turn running from just a sport to a nationwide industry that provides livelihoods and opportunities to thousands of people outside the exclusive club of elite running. In addition, very little has been done to use athletes as national brand ambassadors; in fact, Kenyan runners are often seen as an amorphous whole, rarely identifiable as individual personalities the way other sports stars like, say, Usain Bolt are.
Government agencies and private corporations need to wake up to the benefits of collectively leveraging the brand “Kenya” to promote trade, tourism, and export products during sporting events. If, for instance, you were selling a product or service that has something to do with Kenya and targeting the American market, you are better off promoting that product or service during the major marathons.
That’s about the only time the name “Kenya” will make people stop and listen. RUN with KENYANS, an organization founded by Kenyans based in Boston, Massachusetts in the United States, has for the last year and half been trying to make this case.
At last year’s Boston Marathon, RUN with KENYANS had a booth at the Boston Marathon Health and Fitness Expo, an exhibition that normally attracts big shoe and running apparel companies like Nike and Adidas.
Brand Kenya Board, Kenya Wildlife Service, and Kenya Tourist Board tabled at the RUN with KENYANS booth, which Prime Minister Raila Odinga officially opened on the first day of the exhibition. “People were really excited to visit the booth and learn about Kenya and Kenyan runners,” said Mary Kimonye, the CEO of Brand Kenya Board. “We need to take advantage of events like the Boston Marathon, when people are generally euphoric about Kenya to advance our branding objectives.”
The biggest advantage that runners have as brand ambassadors over other sports figures is that they are essentially roving ambassadors. Most of the major capitals in the world have big marathon races, and most of those races are won by Kenyans.
The kind of “dispersive” publicity that a brand could achieve by aligning with Kenyan runners does not lend itself to any other sport. Runners are like pollen on steroids; they are all over the world, all year round, flying high the Kenyan flag. But serious money has to be invested towards this effort and key players in government and private entities will have to mount a unified, mutually beneficial approach before this goodwill can be turned into tangible benefits for the country.
But beyond spending money, just being cognizant to the promotional power of Kenyan athletes should be a good starting point.
The New York Marathon, arguably the biggest marathon in the world, has as part of the opening ceremony an event called the “Parade of the Nations.” Delegations from almost all the countries represented at the marathon (you will be surprised to find out why I said “almost”) walk down Central Park with signs and flags indentifying their country and then past a dais where the name of the country is called out and the images of the delegation (flags, regalia, and all) flashed across giant TV screens amid cheers from the throngs of masses who come to witness the event.
I was surprised to see that East Timor had a delegation. But I was even more surprised to find out who didn’t––flabbergasted, ashamed, offended. The country whose son was to run the fastest time ever ran in the New York Marathon wasn’t represented at the New York Marathon’s Parade of Nations. And for those wondering, it did not cost a dime to have a delegation. In fact, upon learning that Kenya wasn’t represented, the author of this article hurriedly gathered a few friends––including a Tanzanian!––and managed to fake some kind of Kenyan presence. If our runners only depended on our support, Mutai would have been crossing the finish line now. To his credit, the Ambassador of Kenya to the United States, H. E Elkanah Odembo, took the time to fly in from Washington D.C to treat the runners with ugali and spend an evening with them.
As we clamor for oil, barely able to suppress our Pavlovian excitement, let us not forget the geese that have consistently given us gold. The only time we get a positive headline out there is when a Kenyan runner runs some crazy time on a race. The only time a non-Kenyan, perhaps including President Obama (though secretly), wants to be Kenyan is when they see a victorious Kenyan runner waving the flag as they do a victory lap. We don’t have to want to be Kenyan. We are Kenyan. And we should do whatever is in our power to support our athletes. That, ladies and gentlemen, should be considered a national duty.