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Why life on the ‘fast lane’ is not always fabulous cash and glory

By KIPCHUMBA SOME | February 23rd 2014


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As far back as he can remember, Abraham Chelang’a always wanted to be an athlete.

Growing up in Kapkonder village in Elgeyo Marakwet County, he had seen how the sport had changed the fortunes of some of his village mates.

“Running is like death, no one really wants it or enjoys it, but it has to happen,” he said. “If it wasn’t this, then I was going to be a gangster.”

He has not yet risen to the elite levels, and he might never be there. He has not won any major competition, but he has posted impressive times in marathons and half-marathons across the globe.

He is contended that now he can feed his family and be relatively comfortably in life. He doesn’t have the big money like some of his compatriots but he is happy.

However, something has pricked his confidence and dented his belief in the goodness of people: the people he entrusted with his career have cruelly turned against him.

First, he is embroiled in a bitter war with his longtime Spanish manager Juan Pedro Pineda over money he claims he is yet to be paid.

Chelang’a claims the manager is withholding about £30,000 (Sh4.29 million) for appearances in races across the globe. But the manager says he owes the athlete nothing.

Chelang’a says he is not surprised by his coach’s breach of contract and trust. Such is to be expected in a world that has become ever more commercialised, he reckons.

But £30,000 is no loose change in whatever currency, and he sought the help of Athletics Kenya to recover his dues from his manager.

“I have never received a comment from them despite writing letters and posting them to their website. I personally wrote to Okeyo (AK deputy president David Okeyo) about it, but nothing has come out of it,” he said.

Mr Okeyo acknowledged receiving a letter of complaint from the athlete, but said the manager had informed him that he had met with Chelang’a in Eldoret and resolved the issue.

“I’m really surprised that this matter is still going on, but if this was not the case then he should have contacted me for a follow up,” said Okeyo.

Chelang’a says he has since written several follow-up emails, but which have not be been responded to.

Preying on family

Ahtletics is synonymous with glamour, flashy cars and life on the fast lane. This is true for the few who reach the pinnacle of their sporting careers.

Kenya churns out hundreds of top athletes every year. A handful of them rise to the very top. But far from glitzy lifestyles of the few, it is a dog’s life for majority of them.

This is where the likes of Chelang’a and others fall. Often, theirs is a tale of woe and mistreatment at the hands of foreign managers and agents.

He was not the only one complaining about Mr Pineda. Joyce Chepkirui has sued him to recover some £4,561 (Sh652,851)  she claims the manager is withholding from her.

Three other athletes – Joan Chelimo, Thomson Cherogony and Richard Kiplagat – said the agent was holding back their money after they parted ways. Save for Chelimo, the rest said they have given up hope of recovering the cash.

AK registers and regulates agents and managers’ activities in Kenya and the aggrieved athletes had hoped that the agent would be punished the way it has done others.

But Okeyo said although AK has punished errant agents in the past, in some cases there is little they could do since the contractual agreements worked against the athletes.

“Some of these cases are difficult to solve. Some athletes do not read and understand the fine print of what they sign. So you cannot simply punish an agent who extracted the best deal for themselves. We have told our athletes to come for us for free legal advice before signing anything, but more often, they don’t,” he said.

But if it were only Pineda on Chelanga’s head, he says, he would have rested easy. But like a bad plaque, another manager has preyed on his family, threatening to tear it apart.

He alleges that Agustine Juan Marti, Pineda’s assistant who lives in Eldoret, has been having an affair with his wife while he was abroad for races.

“He started doing so in July last year when I was in the US. I was trying to get a US citizenship when my neighbours back home alerted me to what was going on. I was shocked. I rushed home and confirmed it was the truth. Even my three-year-old son knew about it,” he said.

He has filed a letter of complaint against Marti with the AK, but as with the money issue, he says no one at the organisation got back to him.

His patience for AK has long worn out and he is now looking for a new solution. That is why when he heard that a new union for athletes had been formed, he signed up quickly.

The Professional Association of Athletes of Kenya was formed early this month by a group of athletes, not so much to challenge AK, but to champion the needs of athletes.

“We realised we could achieve more united than when each of us struggles with these issues alone,” said PAAK’s spokesman Gilbert Kiplong. “We need a voice that will talk on behalf of us all.”

He said as of Thursday last week, they had registered 3,800 members. “We have received positive feedback from athletes throughout the country,” he said.

This is the second attempt to form such a union after one that had been formed by former marathon record holder Moses Kiptanui was disintegrated by the politics of Kenya’s athletics world.

Mr Kiptanui has been a constant thorn in the flesh of AK, challenging the organisation’s established leadership, agitating for reforms and greater transparency in the management of the sport.

But now he says he has given up the fight.

“I have given my life to this sport. But I do not want anything more to do with it. I have lost hope of it ever changing. Rather than get my name spoiled by people, let concentrate on my businesses. I can assist athletes in another capacity,” he said.

What has driven him to this conclusion is a worrying issue that may yet cause deep divisions within the athletics fraternity if not arrested early: the bad blood among athletes that is driven by ethnicity.

I am ashamed

He caused much embarrassment to leadership of AK and surprised the nation during the homecoming of triumphant Osaka team in 2007 when he said in front of President Kibaki that his opponents had played the tribal card against him.

“When I won medals, including breaking world records, these guys regarded me a Kenyan, but when I contested AK top seat, I was branded a Marakwet,” Kiptanui said in an interview in Eldoret.

“Personally, I have nothing against being led by anyone from anywhere in this country. I mean it’s a free world and people should be allowed to vie for whatever position they want. But I am ashamed when people use my tribe against me. This has nothing to do with my performance and that is shameful,” he said.


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