Why Kenya became a country of marathoners, not boxers

Kenyan runners continued their winning streak at yesterday's London Marathon. The large cash prizes offered to marathon winners attract Kenya's best athletes, at the expense of other sports. 

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters
Athletics - Virgin Money London Marathon - London - 26/4/15 Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge (1st), Kenya's Wilson Kipsang (2nd) and Kenya's Dennis Kimetto (3rd) pose with their trophies and Prince Harry after the Men's Elite race

When Eliud Kipchoge won the London Marathon on Sunday, the Kenyan runner took home a $50,000 cash prize – excluding time bonuses.

All the world’s major marathons offer significant cash prizes to top finishers: Boston pays $150,000, New York $130,000, and Dubai offers the largest at $200,000. Even mid-to-low tier races offer hefty prizes. And Kenya's runners are nearly always at the front of the pack. 

This was not always the case. Take boxing for example: from the 1960s to 1980s, Kenya had a formidable boxing culture that regularly produced champions that could compete – and win – in the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and world championships.

"We are known worldwide for athletics, [but] there was a time we were known worldwide for boxing,” said Kenyan Jackie Lebo, director of a new documentary “The Last Fight” that charts these golden years in boxing. The “hit squad,” as the national team was known in those days, were as prominent as runners in Kenya's sporting pantheon.

But Kenya's economic and bureaucratic turmoil in the 1980s led to a decline of national funding into sports like boxing. Around the same time, to attract the world’s top runners to their marathons, cities worldwide started offering thousands of dollars in appearance fees and cash prizes.

Kenyan athletes want to proudly represent their countries and also earn money. And running is the one sport that allows you to successfully do both, since runners stand to benefit from foreign cash prizes that can be won independent of corrupt sports federation and the whims of the national economy.

“In 2012, only one boxer qualified [for the Olympics], and yet there was a time we could have enough boxers to attend a Commonwealth, an African championship and a King’s Cup all at the same time,” says Ms. Lebo.

Economic instability

Unlike marathon running with its international prize money, boxing relies on local funding. In the 1960s, government entities like the Kenya Railways Corporation (KRC) would sponsor local clubs and pay for facility maintenance, gear, and travel costs.

The Dallas Boxing Club in Nairobi and Nakuru Amateur Boxing Club, Kenya’s two premier boxing clubs, regularly produced champions. Now they are beat-up structures that have succumbed to decades of scant attention and investment.

“We grew up knowing [that] our future prospects [lay] in Commonwealth, Olympics and pro-boxing,” recalls ‘Coaches’ Ndirangu, a long-time instructor at the Dallas Boxing Club.

But like most of Africa in the 1980s, Kenya faced economic hardship that forced it to rely on foreign creditors, such as the World Bank and IMF, which made loans conditional on privatizing many government-owned companies.

"The retrenchments that happened at the time was a result of the [Structural Adjustment Programs]. Obviously in addition to that, [the] government had to reduce its social expenditure," says David Owiro of the Institute of Economic Affairs. “Almost every state [corporation] had a club. Those were the first budgets to go." 

The consequences were immediate for KRC, and other state enterprises, which slashed spending on community programs like boxing. 

Running for money

Ideally, funding should be the responsibility of the sports federations. But even in popular sports like athletics, Kenya's federations are notorious for mismanaging money, and few private companies are willing to invest. Recently, Safaricom, a major telecommunications company, said it was pulling over $1 million from the sports federations of rugby, soccer and athletics – all highly popular – due to “unethical behavior,” Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore said. 

For boxing clubs, most funding today comes from private donors, including coaches and boxers themselves. As a result, Kenya Police, Kenya Defense Forces and Kenya Prisons dominate boxing because their athletes can earn a living while training in better-equipped gyms.

One of the most poignant parts in Lebo’s documentary is watching 2013 national lightweight champion John Kariuki look for informal jobs in a market. Two years after his win, he carries heavy sacks, despite the strain on his back, and wears torn shoes that he also uses to train. Barely making enough to cover his basic expenses, he lives in a single room shared with his two children and wife.

These hard-knock stories are common in boxing, says Lebo. Running is different. “The economy of running happens outside Kenya. The London marathon, the Boston marathon, the New York Marathon, all those are very wealthy cities that can afford to support the sport...It's been a way for a lot of [runners] to have a better life.”

Top runners can, in more ways than other sports, overcome the ineptitude of their sports federation and earn serious money. Though high government taxes can significantly decrease their winnings, they can earn about $150,000 to $400,000 per race.

“Boxing could have a very bright future, if the support structures were returned. There are very many young people, especially at risk youth, who use it as a way to get out of poverty and as an alternative to a life of crime,” Lebo says. “If there was enough support, we could return back to those glory days.”

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