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Dealing with the training and financial disruptions of coronavirus

World marathon record holder Eliud Kipchoge hands over a torch to a young runner, Abigael Nyambura, during a photo shoot by Absa Kenya PLC ahead of the rebranded bank’s launch of the “Absa Torch of possibilities” campaign that seeks to raise Sh45 million for education in Kenya. PHOTO | POOL |


The proverbial camel that entered the tent while still a baby, grew up, stood and went away with the tent on its hump leaving the owner exposed, seems to be playing out currently.

Hitherto underdogs, e-sports are now giving traditional sports a run for their money.

And with the suspension of the sports calendar and indefinite closure of stadiums and other sports arenas in a bid to help curb the aggressive spread of Covid-19, the sports spotlight has now moved to eSports.

Unfortunately, for most of the local elite sports personalities, both their spotlight and finances have been moved by this disruption.

Online games (e-sports) modelled around traditional sports have not only moved with the spotlight, but with the money too.

Over the last few years, e-sports has continued to gather massive online crowds while also filling physical stadiums to capacity.

The most recent example is the League of Legends World Championship that had a 40,000 strong fan crowd filling the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, while 100 million fans viewed it online.

This compares very well with the 103 million fans that watched Super Bowl 2019, the second most watched sporting final after the Fifa World Cup.

For many e-sports players, this pandemic has presented them with an opportunity to make hay while the sun shines (no pun intended).

The traditional sports stars and their entourage of physiotherapists, publicists, coaches and back room staff are now either in self-isolation or quarantined. They are now surviving on their savings, apparel sponsorship or endorsement payments.

Those without any of these three alternative incomes are looking at a long dark night.

It is little consolation to many sportsmen and women that other industries are also in difficulties because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many Kenyan runners were looking forward to 2020 to make their fame and fortune, considering this year had; the African Senior championships, Africa Cross Country Championships, World Athletics Continental Tour, Diamond League, Tokyo Olympics and the list goes on.

Though a victory in the Olympics has no prize money, an Olympic title opens doors to many financial opportunities.

This could be in form of an increase in apparel contract money and other endorsement packages.

The spread of Covid-19 has led to the suspension of many sports programmes globally by the respective governing bodies and subsequently the above financial opportunities have either vanished into thin air or been postponed.

Kenya’s athletics governing body, Athletics Kenya, suspended its races and ordered the closure of all training camps on March 18.

This decision, although made for the benefit of both the athletes and general public, has disrupted the training schedules of the affected athletes and decimated their financial prospects.

Extensive, in-depth articles have been written about the disruptive impact of the Covid-19 on the economy.

What about the pandemic’s disruption on sports?

Last month, the Sunday Nation alongside the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) highlighted the impact of lockdowns, quarantine and sports calendar suspension on training schedule of world marathon record holder, Eliud Kipchoge.

Complains of loneliness

In the article, Kipchoge complains of loneliness during training. What is not highlighted broadly, is the effect on his and other elite athletes’ financial health.

To put this in context, it is important to highlight that most elite athletes make money through apparel and product endorsement contracts, appearance fees, prize money and bonuses during races.

The value of these contracts varies as per the race category, elite athletes’ stature and popularity.

For instance, even though many Kenyans and Ethiopian athletes perform better than Sir Mo Farah in the marathon, his apparel and marketing contracts are worth much higher than that of the East African runners.

The global athletics governing body (World Athletics) labels road races (5km, 10km, half and full marathons) based on the standards of organisation, implementation of World Athletics rules, support from local authorities, commitment in the advancement of the sport and steps instituted for global doping control.

These include WA Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze races.

On the other hand, elite athletes are labelled using gold, silver and bronze status.

The top 150 athletes in a specific category meet the gold status, while silver and bronze status is accorded to those ranked 151-300 and 301-400 respectively.

The World Marathon Majors series (Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York and Tokyo) are examples of WA Platinum labelled races. These races offer huge appearance fees, prize money and bonuses, making them the most attractive.

These platinum races are required to have at least eight gold label athletes while gold label races should have a minimum of four athletes from both genders.

It is estimated that the cumulative appearance, prize money and bonuses of World Marathon Majors is between Sh20million and Sh50 million.

Winning a World Marathon Majors title further makes the elite athlete eligible for the annual jackpot of Sh100 million.

So, if an elite marathoner wins two world major marathons in a year and grabs the jackpot, the take-home is millions of shillings.

This is the kind of money some of our gold label marathoners such as Vivian Cheruiyot, Brigid Kosgei and Mary Keitany risk losing amidst the postponement of races and closure of training camps.
Why is the closure of training camps such a big issue?

Training at the elite level is both a stressful and lonely affair.

Many athletes cannot keep up with the rigour of training three times a day, six days a week. Since there is strength in numbers, most of these athletes’ naturally resort to group training.

In these groups, the athletes develop programmes that help them combat overtraining at the individual level by distributing the pressure.

Take the weekly long run for instance. This might be 40 kilometres long and may take a toll on the elite athlete if he/she was to run alone.

To circumvent this, an athlete creates a group of “pacemakers” at different intervals (say two 15km segments) and leads the last 10km. Therefore, when an athlete is disrupted, to solely maintain the rigorous tough weekly training schedule, it is very tough on them.

How should an athlete deal with these challenges?

Let us begin with training. Training individually athletes will have to reduce the volume and intensity of their workout.

This will enable them focus on keeping fit while also recovering from the initial rigorous training.

Much of this training should be on soft surfaces to decrease the risk of musculoskeletal injuries such as stress fractures, soft tissue disruption (Achilles tendon injury) and muscle strain.

More resistance indoor training on mats, using cross-trainers and personal treadmill could suffice.

This has been aptly exemplified by World Half Marathon record holder Geoffrey Kamworor on his Instagram posts.

Other than tip-top physical health, good mental health is also essential.

To manage their mental health, top psychologists advise attention shifting as a technic that should be prioritised.

Rather than worrying about the ban on group training and when it will be lifted to allow for normal training, athletes should focus on their personal and social relations.

Personal relations simply involve being at peace with oneself. This could be achieved through meditation exercises, long-form reading, adequate and regular sleep among other interventions that mental health experts prescribe.

On social relations, being at peace with the family reduces squabbles and further improves mental health.

They should also take advantage of social media to interact with their fan base. This positive energy is what will keep their boats sailing.

Financially, the pandemic has exposed the risk of limiting one’s revenue streams to race events and apparel contracts.

Athletes should start exploring other sources of revenue, and they could do this by using social media aggressively to increase their fan base.

A huge fan base means better terms on your apparel contract. It further increases your chances of getting product endorsement opportunities and being invited to non-domain events.

Take for instance Usain Bolt. His huge fan base commanded him press conference specifically for him during the 2016 Rio Olympic Games while other global stars had to content with a shared presser.

The fame and visibility brought by a huge fan base saw him invited to the 2019 Super Bowl to engage in a 50-yard fan sprint for show and money.

Kenya’s marathon great Kipchoge has a growing fan base that is now global, a rare feat for a Kenyan.

Nike and other local brands such as Isuzu have taken advantage of his huge fan base to broaden their marketing scope.

Kipchoge apparel sponsors Nike, use him frequently whenever they are opening a new store, and most recently to support the school “daily-mile” running programme in London and he is also the Brand Ambassador for Isuzu D-Max.

Knowing that this is not the last disruption our athletes will face, they should seriously consider forming their own “Chamas”, something to help them weather the coronavirus storm.

Revolving fund

As most apparel contracts are renewable annually, it is prudent to invest the money received in a revolving fund.

This could be used to purchase training equipment and gear for both themselves and the amateurs who train with them, when on or off contract.

Athletes should also seriously consider a crossover between their traditional sports and eSports.

Global stars like Gareth Bale, Mesut Ozil, Alessio Romagnoli, Antoine Grizmann and LeBron James have recently formed teams in e-sports.

Bale almost replicated his success on the field in the online space when his Ellevens Esports team reached the final of the Fifa eClub World Cup in Italy last February. Unfortunately, they lost to Team Complexity.

The e-sports prize money is now matching traditional sports.

A classical case in point was last year when Kyle Giersdorf won $3 million (about Sh3.18 million) following his victory in a Fortnite tournament.

In comparison, Tiger Woods, the winner of the US Masters golf earned $1 million less than Kyle.

The time is ripe for our top athletes too to replicate their on-track success online. Lastly, most of the World Major Marathons (London, Boston, Berlin, Chicago and New York) have been postponed to the fall season (September to November).

Majority of these races are only a week or two apart. This will require prospective contestants to be strategic and avoid greed.

While most eSports stars play for 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week; it will not be feasible for a runner to compete in all the available races.

The athletes for the time being will still have to healthily space their races and matches. The beginning of 2021 will also have many world athletics events close together. Lack of proper planning may make all of them want to compensate for lost revenue by competing in races in quick succession.

This will not only increase their risk of injury due to overtraining but also be career limiting ahead of the Olympics.

This article was written by Paul Ochieng’, Dean of Students at Strathmore and Gerald Lwande. It was first published in the Daily Nation.