Just before the London Olympics opened, an article by a certain Derek Bbanga, a branding and communications expert, was published by the Daily Nation.
The author made some compelling points on sports in general and why top Kenyan athletes don’t make it to the big time in terms of money and exposure.
He mentioned as contrasts names like Usain Bolt and British pentathlete Jessica Ennis. Bolt was indisputably the star attraction of the London Olympics.
When last week President Barack Obama pleaded on the campaign trail with his restive supporters that “I am no Usain Bolt, I can’t work change fast enough,” it was the ultimate affirmation that the Jamaican sprinter had emerged as a global megastar.
Bolt has reached this elevated status not merely because of his super speed. He is entertaining, knows how to banter with the media and has a playful personality that people of all ages are happy with. He is the kind of face global corporations like Coca-Cola, Nike or Samsung will pay anything to market their products worldwide.
There is no question that Kenya has, over the years, produced incredibly talented runners and will continue to do so.
Unfortunately, unless you belong to the circle of athletics aficionados, you would hardly recognise many of our athletes if you encountered any at a bank queue or the supermarket.
Mr Bbanga attributed this to weakness in terms of personal branding and inability to communicate in a way that can capture a mass media audience.
A Uganda-based friend of mine describes our top athletes as “entrepreneurs,” not stars. They make tidy sums from the Grand Prix and Diamond League athletics circuit. But, even there, as Mr Bbanga pointed out, the amounts are peanuts compared to what superstars like Bolt or US swimmer Michael Phelps earn in corporate endorsements and sponsorship deals.
An exception in Kenya’s case could turn out to be David Rudisha, the 800m gold medallist. There looks to be real potential in him to go far ahead of what his local colleagues can achieve.
And not just in money-minting ability, but also in the kind of enduring stardom that marks truly great athletes even when they have passed their prime. The lad has poise and even a hint of charisma. Given the right packaging and communication training, I can see him holding his own with international sports brands such as Britain’s Mo Farah or Cote d’Ivoire’s Didier Drogba.
It is fair to say that the one true internationally acknowledged brand in athletics Africa has produced is Haile Gebrsellasie of Ethiopia. He is the greatest distance runner of his generation, anywhere.
Combined with his winning smile and warm personality, he became a hot commodity with both sports organisers and corporate marketers. So wholesome is the diminutive Ethiopian’s PR image that many of his fans winced when he was made the face of an advertising campaign for Diageo’s Johnny Walker whisky.
Nearer home, we have Kipchoge Keino from an earlier generation when sports marketing and commercialisation were not like today.
Yet he remains in the public mind the most outstanding athlete in Kenya’s history. People who reach this stature do so because of many factors over and above mere sporting prowess. A lot of it has to do with intangibles of personality, circumstance, place and time.
Flipping nationalities for money where today you are African then tomorrow you are running as a Qatari or as a Dane will not endear you much with your fans. Worse, you also confuse corporate sponsors.
In today’s world of mega-media, there is no limit to self-actualisation. Think of immortals who have transcended their sports and become world icons. Think of Muhammad Ali. And Pele. Now, that is a tough act to follow even for an Usain Bolt.
Listen to Mr Bbanga again: “Being a successful athlete isn’t enough; they need to inspire others not only during their careers, but long after.”