We must professionalise sports

BY DENNIS NDIRITU

There has been a lot of hue and cry over local sports management in recent times, coming amid the backdrop of neglect of both our teams, across the board but notably basketball, netball and volleyball, and our individual athletes. 

It is such treatment that prompts the call for professionalization of sports in the local scene. This would enable our sportsmen to make a living entirely from their respective sporting ventures. Just like European football and basketball players, Kenyan sportsmen ought to be approached by companies, sign big sponsorship packages and negotiate lucrative television deals.If correctly implemented, sportsmen at the pinnacle of their sporting careers could earn good money each season. New stars could be made and there would be a sense of rejuvenated interest in erstwhile disregarded sports such as cricket with racing and other sporting activities starting to pop up in Counties due to the lucrative sponsorships they would attract.

Professionalization of sports around the world has been of huge benefit to Kenya. Among the initial Kenyan athletes to benefit from professionalization of sport was Kipchoge Keino at the 1968 Summer Olympics Men’s 5000m. Douglas Wakiihuri, who won the marathon at the World Championships in Rome in 1987 and many in between them and became the first Kenyan to win the London Marathon in 1989 and the second Kenyan to win the New York Marathon in 1990. Other outstanding athletes from this period were John Ngugi, five-time World Cross Country Champion and gold medallist at the 5,000m in the 1988 Seoul Olympics; as well as Paul Kipkoech, the Rome 1987 World Championships 10,000m gold medallist. 

Ronald Fryer, a sports commentator with New York Time and a Prof. of Economics at Havard notes that if you want to understand people, you have to look at “which direction the incentives are pointing them to”. With the professionalization of sports, runners stopped looking at athletics as a way to get a job or a college scholarship and started looking at it as a way to earn a living. For example, The first prize at the 2012 Boston Marathon, for instance, was Sh5 million, not taking into account appearance fees. Kenyan sportsmen do not operate in a vacuum, they operate within a global sports economy worth billions of dollars overseen by the multinational sport corporate such as Nike, Puma, Adidas, Asics, Brooks, New Balance, Under Armour and Champion. Their continued dominance in respective sporting fields is bound to attract sponsorship from these brands. 

When the professional runners come back from the various world championships, they engage in cash purchase of assets such as land, houses and cars, which contribute immensely to the growth of business and town centers and does not go unnoticed by the surrounding communities who draw great inspiration from this. Infrastructure such as the youth camp at St Patrick’s Iten and initiatives such as the Tegla Lorupe peace run have provided the models for development of budding talents who have used such platforms to catapult them into becoming star athletes. In a country where higher education opportunities are limited, professionalization of sports presents a very real path to a better life, and that is why so many youngsters take the plunge.With the legal and institutional framework in Kenya such as the Sports Act 2013 and Anti-Doping Act 2016 as well as establishment of the Sports Disputes Tribunal and Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya, it is perplexing that we are still unable to exploit the wide talent pool in Kenya to mint money from sports. 

The endemic corruption in the Ministry of sports has been a thorn in the flesh of proper management of sports. It has led to the loss of millions of shillings through various scandals such as the August 2016 Rio Olympics fiasco, which saw millions of shillings meant for Team Kenya as well as kit from American giants Nike misappropriated. While the case is still in court, a probe ordered by then Minister of Sports Hasssan Wario laid blame squarely on the National Olympic Committee of Kenya and the ministry bureaucrats. The thriving of doping unabated in light of the enactment of the Anti-Doping Act warrants new strategies to reign in on this creeping menace. Despite Kenya being declared compliant to the World Anti-Doping Agency Code, more athletes have been found culpable of doping yet to date no athlete, coach, agent, supplier or any other individual complicit in substance abuse has been successfully prosecuted. 

Outside athletics, it is common knowledge that recreational drugs such as marijuana, tobacco and alcohol are rampantly used by footballers, rugby players and boxers among others with almost non-existent doping control in those sports perpetuating the vice.That there is a huge infrastructural problem in our sports industry cannot be downplayed. The 2019 Africa Cup of Nations cast the spotlight on Kenya’s total negligence of its sports, one that has been a story of failed promises, neglected athletes, and poor sporting infrastructure. In its party manifesto, the Jubilee Government formulated several electoral pledges that were tailored towards the development of sports infrastructure. Among the solutions offered in the manifesto included the establishment of a National Lottery Scheme that would be boosted by budgetary allocation set to aid, fund and support professional sporting leagues across different disciplines. There was an assurance to pursue tax incentives for both individual and private sector investors. However, the most colorful of them was the construction of five state of the art national stadia in Kisumu, Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret and Garissa. To date none of these lofty ideas is yet to be implemented as sports in the country is quickly spiraling to the gutter. The government was not even shaken by the fact that the CAF stripped the country of the rights to host the 2018 Africa Nations Championships, with poor infrastructure cited as the main reason. 

Continued wrangles in the various federations managing sports in the country have not helped our case either. This has been evident in the Cricket, Kenya Netball Federation, Kenya Swimming Federation, Football Kenya Federation and the Kenya Rugby Union, which is currently knee deep in financial woes. 

These unnecessary squabbles will make professionalization of sports in Kenya a dream unless they are addressed. It is high time the ministry stops operating as though it is difficult to have a register of all sports federations in Kenya, calendar of national and international activities and budgets that can be agreed on before the start of any financial year, and elaborate and effective dispute resolution mechanisms.   

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