Grant Jarvie and Michele Sikes: Kenyans driven to succeed
Kenyan women athletes are highly motivated by the power of athletics to help them, their families and their communities escape poverty, write Grant Jarvie and Michele Sikes
When Priscah Jeptoo won the silver medal in the 2012 women’s Olympic marathon, she became the latest in a long line of Kenyan runners to achieve Olympic success.
Tecla Sang was one of the first female Kenyan Olympic runners when she ran the 400 metres at the 1968 Mexico City games, while Pamela Jemilo was the first Kenyan women to win an Olympic gold medal when she won the 800 meters at the 2008 Beijing Olympic games.
Scientists who have tried to explain Kenyan and Ethiopian running success talk of genetics or diet and high-altitude training as being some of the key factors. Undoubtedly these are all part of the picture for many athletes making it, but so too is the opportunity for runners to escape poverty and change not only their own lives but also those of their communities.
The women’s 2012 Olympic 10,000 meters was won by Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba, with Sally Kipyego and Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya taking silver and bronze. In the pre-race build-up, the commentator, Brendan Foster was asked to explain Kenyan and Ethiopian running success, and his answer was simple: “it’s a route out”. Poverty exits in many parts of the world and the will to alter life chances is not unique to Kenyans, but the difference, in part, is that Kenyans and Ethiopians have successfully channelled this through running.
In a recent survey of Kenyan women athletes, the majority declared that money, while not the sole reason, was a primary motivation for taking up athletics.
It is not charity that Kenyan women runners want, but the tools to determine their own life chances in a more equitable world.
For an earlier generation of female Kenyan athletes, running provided a chance to travel, reinforced fame and recognition, and occasionally it provided some material resources.
Ruth Waithera ran at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic games and became the first woman from Kenya and Africa to qualify for the finals of the Olympics. She said that she ran for fame and “to be protected”, which meant the chance to have greater freedom in choosing her own path in life.
In her words: “ [I ran] to change my life. To get the name, which means to be protected. Because if you have a name, it means you are protected.”
She suggests that nowadays running is like a business because you see “it is how they are getting money”.
Susan Sirma, the first woman in Kenya to win a medal at the World Athletics Championships, notes that “Athletes from 2000 until now are different from the ones before; nowadays everyone is training for that jackpot”.
At the start of their careers, Kenyan women runners today fully recognise what running success can confer on their children and extended families.
One mother of two small boys and an aspiring 10km runner describes her motivation: “I run to change my life. I run for my children, not only for these two, but also for the brother.”
Another trains in order to secure the resources to purchase a plot of land. “Then I build a very good house,” she says. “And after that I would build rental houses in town.”
It is clear from these interviews carried out jointly by researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Oxford that one of the primary motivations for Kenyan woman athletes is that running is a vehicle to changing the family’s standard of living as well as their own position in running.
A woman’s desire to provide a new home for her family, to pay for school fees for children and in general transform living standards and life chances through running is just as significant an explanation of running success for some Kenyan women athletes as some other factors such as genetics and way of life.
The emergence of considerable prize money in athletics has had enormous consequences for many Kenyan athletes, but the economic downturn has also affected some as a result of a reduction in the availability of sponsorship money.
In 2009, Hellen Kimutai commented that the decrease in the income she earned from sponsorship meant that she and her husband Kenneth must now rely on income from their farm and running, as opposed to just profits from running, to put their four children through school.
Yet the income generated from professional running still has the potential to contribute to economic growth in local communities. Reports published in Kenyan newspapers regularly testify to the significance of this income and they offer an insight into the economic changes that have been wrought in the Rift Valley highlands.
This is particularly true in Eldoret, Kenya’s fifth largest city, and its satellite towns and villages, where runners insert their winnings into the local economies.
The Daily Nation recently recorded that money from prizes is fast turning the region from an agricultural zone into a massive investment destination as sportsmen and women buy up property in the area.
The surrounding area of Iten is the place where Britain’s Mo Farah, the men’s 10,000 metres Olympic gold medallist, and many other international runners have gone to train and to gain an insight into Kenyan running success.
The Rift Valley highlands of East Africa are not only where Eldoret and Iten are located but are often celebrated as the epicentre of the endurance running world.
The region has an average rural poverty rate of 48 per cent and an estimated 3.18 million poor. Many female runners come from this background, which offers few economic opportunities, and in such circumstances why should the resources afforded by running not be viewed as a viable route out of poverty for those who can make it? As such, it is an important part of the explanation not only for Kenyan and Ethiopian running success at the London 2012 Olympic games.
The creation of wealth through running and the potential impact that this has on lives and communities is just as important in explaining East African running success as other factors.
• Professor Grant Jarvie is with the University of Edinburgh and Michele Sikes is with the University of Oxford. The research into Kenyan running is to be published in the Review of African Political Economy.
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