Kenya has to continuously tap new talent or risk a long lean season in athletics competitions, according to a Nation Newsplex analysis of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) data, which shows that the career cycle of an individual Kenyan athlete is predictable almost to the year.
Kenya ranks second after the US on the all-time medal table of the IAAF World Championships in Athletics, with 55 gold, 48 silver, and 37 bronze medals.
The country's dominance in middle and long-distance track events, as well as in road races, has made athletics one of the most lucrative careers in the country.
But as professional athletes pace up and down on the slopes of Iten, preparing for the next big call, an input into the training ought to factor in how long each world beater can keep the country’s star up and shining.
An elaborate talent recruitment mechanism ensures that there is a smooth transition and therefore the country doesn’t give up its dominance in a specific race to a rival country, say Ethiopia, as soon as the athlete who has been flying the national flag begins to lag behind.
According to an events and outcomes catalogue for a representative 122 Kenyan athletes obtained from IAAF, every athlete has an entry, a peak and an exit stage of their career.
The study focused on a list of about half the number of Kenyan runners that had taken part in the Olympics Games, IAAF Championships or the All African Games since 1963 as of September 2018, according to Wikipedia. The sample was representative of gender and competitiveness (included a fair share of those who won gold, those who won other medals and those who did not win any medal).
Focus then shifted to the performance history of each of the 122 runners as contained in the IAAF database. The study factored in big international exploits as well as local, relatively low-profile competitions.
The Newsplex analysis defines the career length of an athlete as the period between the first and the last times one is in the medal bracket, and career peak as the time between the first and the last wins in one’s professional career.
Using this definition, the average peak period that the profession of a Kenyan athlete lasts is eight years, in which they would win 17 times.
Their career would extend for an average of two years during which they would finish second 11 times, and third seven times.
A long peak period isn’t only good for the country as it is the only opportunity for the athlete to get his return on investment.
For the very competitive athletes who get regular opportunities to compete at IAAF events, this number of races almost automatically translates into money. Each IAAF athletics championship attracts a prize of Sh4 million, Sh2 million and Sh1 million for gold, silver and bronze, respectively. The world athletics body also awards Sh5 million for whoever wins with a new world record.
Big-city marathons are the most lucrative of all IAAF track and road races. For instance, an athlete who crosses the tape first in the Dubai Marathon pockets Sh25 million, and Sh15 million in the Boston Marathon, the two most-rewarding road runs. About 10 marathons pay at least Sh5 million to winners. In some cases, a prize is also attached to a new course record set.
Top-flight athletes also collect colossal amounts of money from endorsement and sponsorship deals.
A Kenyan athlete wins about three in 10 career races, according to the data. Nevertheless, there are outliers to the winning streak.
The top section of the chart below shows athletes who won in 70 percent of the races they ran. A high win ratio is a remarkable feat, especially if it is a result of many competitions.
Save for Kipkemboi Kimeli, who ran only three races, the rest participated in over 50 track events each and won close to three quarters of their races. And they achieved this feat as jacks of all trades, not specialists of any particular race or just a few races, save for David Rudisha, who participated in only four events – 400m, 600m, 800m, and 1,000m – and Kimeli, who specialised in outdoor 100m and 200m.
The probability of a regular athlete exhibiting this phenomenon is highly unlikely. Even the greatest marathoner ever, Eliud Kipchoge, has won only 35 percent of the races in which he has competed.
One reason some runners register a low win-to-races ratio is that they take too much time before they settle on the races that match their strengths and style. Eliud, for example, participated in various middle-distance events where he mostly won silver or bronze until 2012 before he specialised in marathons to which he owes his greatness.
History has shown that Kenya can never go into the next big competition relying solely on its past exploits, but on the abilities and preparedness of individual athletes.
The country won 10 gold medals in the 2014 Commonwealth Games with a team of 74 athletes, a 14 percent success rate. In the 2018 edition, that number reduced to four gold medals from a squad of 66 athletes, a six percent success rate.
According to statistics, the group behaviour of such a big national team is non-ergodic, a statistical term meaning the group cannot give the same result over a long period of time. It therefore follows that athletics in Kenya is a highly individualised sport, and that while the country consistently ranks high in competitions, individuals might exhibit inconsistent performance that eventually affects the group results.
For instance, David Rudisha did not win gold in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in his specialty race of 800m, despite having an impressive 71 percent win ratio in the runs in which he had participated. Additionally, Pamela Jelimo had an impressive start to her career, only to last five years – below the sample average.
Big international events should therefore not be a preserve of the star runners, but also an opportunity to introduce new talent, a balance the athletics management in Kenya has always aimed to achieve.
Survival for the fittest
In the group representing Kenya in international athletics from time to time, there are those athletes with traits that support high "survival".
To observe characteristics that affect the career length of athletes, we construct a survival curve. It is a statistical tool that computes the probability of occurrence of an event at different points in time, in our case, the likelihood of an athlete stopping winning after a certain period.
Starting with an initial group of athletes, we note the rate at which individuals exit the gold club. The diagram at the top of the page depicts the survival rate of athletes who have a world record (blue) and those who don't (red).
From the curve, we can see that athletes who set a world record have a higher survival rate – they gain unfettered access to almost any competition as long as they are fit. The probability of the competitive career of a world record holder surpassing eight years is 72 percent while that of non-world record holders is 49 percent.
Kenya has 45 registered IAAF world records. Daniel Komen holds the longest Kenyan unbroken world record for the 3000m, set in 1996. During the two-year period between 1996 and 1998, Komen broke a string of world records, including improving on his world records. His career lasted 10 years.
The curve shows that despite world record holders enjoying a higher survival rate, their professional career never surpasses 16 years – Eliud Kipchoge will be the first if he wins next year. This is probably because they achieve enough success in a shorter time than non-record holders who stay on much longer. The longest career span recorded is 22 years.
The expected career length of a female athlete is 7.5 years compared to eight years for her male counterpart.
From the survival curve below, we can see that female athletes have the same survival rate as male athletes in the first six years, after which female athletes have a higher chance staying active for a few more years.
Female athletes are known to take maternal breaks in their careers and stay out for a year or so. Their late exit from competition may be as a result of the desire or need to make up for lost time.
''Running is nothing more than a series of arguments between the part of your brain that wants to stop and the part that wants to keep going.''
The author is a data scientist.