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THE EMERGENCE, IMPACT AND DOMINANCE OF AFRICAN RUNNERS ON THE WORLD OF DISTANCE RACING - By Luis Felipe Posso
It wasn’t until 1989, when my telephone bill was bigger than my salary, and when two of my Mexican clients, Dionicio Ceron and Salvador Garcia, were making real money that I made the decision to become an agent full time and decided to move to Florida as New York City was just too cold for me. By 1992 I was representing runners from more than 20 countries including the 2 marathon gold medalist at the ’92 Barcelona Olympics, Valentina Yegorova of Russia and Hwang Young-Cho of Korea
The 20th World Congress of AIMS was held in Durban (RSA) from 28-31 May 2014. It was the first AIMS Congress to be held in Africa, and was hosted by the Comrades Marathon. The 89th edition of Comrades was held on the day following Congress.
The main theme of the Congress was ‘Africa as the home of distance runners’. Speakers included Luis Posso who has been instrumental in bringing African distance running talent to the fore for the last three decades.
As one of the world's top sports management agents Luis Felipe Posso was instrumental in developing the channels that brought African runners to the fore during the 1980s and 1990s. Columbian-born US citizen Posso is an IAAF and FIFA licensed agent who currently represents many of the world's best long distance athletes from over 30 countries.
His company Posso Sports has been in existence since 1994 and is recognised as a global leader in the industry, with offices across four continents working across representation, contract negotiation, legal services and personal and brand management.
THE EMERGENCE, IMPACT AND DOMINANCE OF AFRICAN RUNNERS ON THE WORLD OF DISTANCE RACING - By Luis Felipe Posso
I arrived in New York City in the summer of 1983, a 21 year old Colombian runner at the time, and very soon after that, I joined the West Side Runners Club and became a member and volunteer for the New York Road Runners Club. I already knew about the New York City Marathon because my coach in Colombia, Agustin Calle, had run the race twice, finishing sixth in 1972, and he was always telling us about his experience of racing in the Big Apple.
Later that fall I volunteered at the number pickup for the marathon (located in the basement of the Sheraton Center Hotel on 7th Avenue - now they need a convention center!). On race day I was a commentator the race for a Colombian radio station, and the weekend had a particularly happy ending as Domingo Tibaduiza, Colombia’s best marathoner at the time, finished in eighth place in a new Colombian and South American record, just ahead of my eventual client and later friend and still business partner Derek Froude from New Zealand.
Over the next couple of years, I started meeting and befriending many Latin American runners that came to race in and around New York (mostly Colombians and Mexicans). At some point I started allowing some of them to stay for days, weeks in my small apartment in Queens, and soon after that, I also met international elite runners, and found out that all had come to the U.S.A through invitations arranged by their National Federations.
I also met many African runners that were going to universities in the U.S. on scholarships, later through some connections in Puerto Rico and Colombia, I helped some to compete in races there for pocket money – because at that time, running was strictly an amateur sport and prize money was only just beginning to appear in a select few US road races. Prize money and appearance money were both forbidden under IAAF and all member federation rules.
I wasn’t an agent, or even aspiring to be one. I just enjoyed being around world-class runners and to have the opportunity to train with then all while working two jobs in New York City.
My friend Domingo Tibaduiza (winner in Berlin 1982!) gave me a list of races in the new ARRA circuit of prize money events, along with the telephone and fax numbers of each organizer, in 1986, I offered three Colombian runners to come and stay with me for the summer so that they could run some of the races on the circuit. That year I travelled with them to Portland (for Cascade Run Off), Atlanta (for Peachtree Road Race), Utica (for Boilermaker) and Asbury Park (for the Asbury Park 10K).
They also ran some smaller races in the greater New York area. It was this summer that I discovered how hard it was for runners to collect the prize money being paid by these groundbreaking events. Under a deal struck with the U.S Federation and the IAAF, athletes had to deposit their winnings into a special trust account offered only by the Bank of Boulder in Boulder, Colorado. And to even open such an account the runners needed a U.S. social security number. Once opened and winnings deposited, the athletes could only withdraw this money for approved training-related expenses that could be documented with appropriate receipts.
It was a complicated process, and being the friendly, helpful guy that I am, I started helping runners from all around the world to open these trust accounts and help them to claim the money that they had won. Soon I was receiving phone calls from everywhere asking me to help to enter them in races and arranging visa invitations. Often these runners left messages on my answering machine at home, while I was at work, so I’d call them back when I could, and quickly found that my phone bill was increasing very fast.
At this time, the late ‘80’s, Mexican runners were almost as dominant on the roads in the USA as the Kenyans are today. I would bring one or two runners to a race, but they would have two or three friends tag along. And most of the time all of them ended up on the podium.
One of the runners that stayed with me in the summer of 1986, Silvio Salazar of Colombia, told me that when he raced in Europe his agent charged him 10% commission and since he was staying with me more than one month, he offered to pay me the same 10% of what he made. After that conversation, I told the other runners that I could help them, but I was going to have charge them 10% commission to help pay my phone bill and everybody agreed to pay, but since most of the road racing athletes were making between $500 and $3000, I mostly didn’t bother to collect anything.
It wasn’t until 1989, when my telephone bill was bigger than my salary, and when two of my Mexican clients, Dionicio Ceron and Salvador Garcia, were making real money that I made the decision to become an agent full time and decided to move to Florida as New York City was just too cold for me.
By 1992 I was representing runners from more than 20 countries including the 2 marathon gold medalist at the ’92 Barcelona Olympics, Valentina Yegorova of Russia and Hwang Young-Cho of Korea
One morning in 1991, I was working in my home office in Tampa, when a fax came in from a coach named Jacques Malan in South Africa, and he said that with the end of apartheid and South Africa’s reinstatement by the IAAF, there were many runners in South Africa who could run with anyone in the world. But, it was very difficult to get a race invitation, he said every race he had spoken to in the USA told him the same story – that I was the only person likely to be able to help him.
I picked up the phone and dialed Jacques in South Africa, shocking him as he’d only just send his fax and wasn’t expecting a response for days (if ever). I agreed to finance one runner to come to the USA as a test, but Jacques told me the athletes had no international travel experience and one athlete on his own just wouldn’t work. Jacques insisted that he needed to come too, and I reluctantly agreed to fund athlete and coach. Waiting at Tampa airport, I had no idea what to expect as I had been reluctant to ask whether athlete and coach were black or white. What I hadn’t expected is what I got. A young black African athlete, Lawrence Peu, and a white coach!
Lawrence did fairly well in his first races in the USA, and the relationship with Jacques Malan flourished into a friendship and successful business relationship that was a part of South Africa’s first ever Olympic gold medal (Josia Thugwane in the marathon at the 1996 Atlanta Games) and continued through to his untimely death in 2000.
As I mentioned, at the time the Mexican runners were the dominant road racers and the few Africans that were racing well were not living in Africa - Kenyan Douglas Wakihuri was training in Japan while Ibrahim Hussein, Michael Musyoki, Joseph Nzau and Sam Ngatia were based in the USA along with a few others, including Tanzanians Gidamis Shahanga and Agapius Masong. But there were no Ethiopians running in the ARRA circuit. We only saw one or two Ethiopians invited to the Boston marathon every year.
In the late 80's and early ‘90’s, many of the top Mexican made the transition to the marathon and were equally dominant at this distance. Mexicans won many of the world’s biggest marathons during this period including New York, Chicago, London, Rotterdam, Fukuoka, Los Angeles, often placing more than one runner on the podium.
Africans were not a force at all in marathon running during this period. The top 100 men’s marathon rankings in 1990 had only 14 Africans, and only one of these was a Kenyan – the previously mentioned Douglas Wakihuri, based in Japan, at #12.
But it was about this time that the demographics of marathon running started to change, and it was led by the coaching efforts of European coach/managers. In particular the following three individuals were a huge influence on our sport:
• Dr. Gabrielle Rosa of Italy, who started coaching Kenyan athletes at a camp in Italy and soon after, at camps he established in Kenya.
• The late Kim McDonald, who also starting coaching Kenyans and had camps in the UK and Kenya.
• Jos Hermens, of the Netherlands, who started a similar program with Ethiopian runners.
The effect of scientific training techniques was felt rapidly. By 1995, as these programs were just getting established, there were 21 Africans in the top 100 men, including 16 Kenyans, 4 South Africans and just 1 Ethiopian. But by 2000 the number of African men in the top 100 had swelled to 47, with 38 of those Kenyan. So in just 5 years, half of the top 100 men were now African. And the explosion continued, so that by 2010, an astonishing 97 of the top 100 men were African, with 51 of them Kenyan!
The same story played out in women’s running, although the change came on more slowly due to social influences in Africa that kept young African women from taking up careers as professional athletes in the large numbers that were doing so amongst the male athletes. In 2000, there were 20 African women in the top 100 marathoners in the world, including 14 Kenyans.
And by 2010 this has grown to 42 Africans, including 10 Kenyans and 32 Ethiopians – a difference from the men’s demographics that was due to Ethiopian women being quicker to recognize the successful career that could be had as a marathon runner.
And so the trend has continued. The overwhelming domination of Kenyan and Ethiopian runners is plain in this year’s lists of the world’s fastest performers. So far this year, the top 100 male performers include 89 Africans - 52 Kenyans and 37 Ethiopians. The fastest non-African male is Kohei Matsumara of Japan in position #49. On the women’s top 100 list there are 71 Africans including 53 Ethiopians and 18 Kenyans
This is not going to change, and in fact the dominance of these two countries on the world marathon lists is only getting stronger, pushing other nationalities’’ best athletes further down into the 200’s and 300’s best performers of the year. The successes of the three professionally run training groups of the mid ‘90’s that I referred to above has led to similar efforts by a multitude of professional coaches, agents and now even athletes themselves. Groups of 20, 50 and 100 runners in each camp share training ideas and push each other to new heights. It is well known throughout Kenya and Ethiopia that one of the most accessible and lucrative career paths for a young high school student is to become a distance runner, and most likely, eventually a marathon runner.
Iten, a booming city in Kenya’s Rift Valley, owes its economic reason for being to running. Running, and marathon running particular, is the #1 industry and has generated an economic impact well beyond the runners themselves as the accumulated wealth of these athletes gets channeled into new businesses, from shops to hotels and even private schools.
But there is a dark side to the visible success of the top athletes such as Wilson Kipsang or Patrick Makau. The thousands of athletes in training camps, because there are thousands of actual and aspiring professional athletes in each of Kenya and Ethiopia, cannot all have managers and cannot all get invitations to races.
Many simply train for years in the hope of getting noticed. Worse, many are borrowing money from agents, family members, training partners, even loan sharks, to finance a ticket to a race somewhere outside Kenya. The vast majorities of athletes that take such a risk do not make any money, and in fact don’t even recoup their ticket costs. Managers such as myself at any point in time are owed tens of thousands of dollars for tickets advances to athletes that didn’t make it, and will probably never make it. Even worse is the fate of athletes borrowing off loan sharks to get tickets – they end up in jail until family members can come up with a way, such as selling off a family cow, to pay the debt that is owed.
Even the new athletes who are lucky enough to get a paid ticket to an international race are often losing money. Most of your races pay only an athlete's international ticket, hotel, and perhaps meals. These athletes are still funding their own internal travel costs, airport taxes, visa fees, travel insurance and out of pockets spending on meals while traveling. So if they don’t finish in the prize money, they are losing money not making money.
We have a problem in our sport. We need to find a way to allow the existing top tier Africans to come to your races, along with the top athletes from other countries and a certain percentage of the up and coming athletes that could be the world’s next superstars.
But we need to keep the size of the invited fields in proportion to the prize list that you are offering. Inviting 15 to 25 men when your prize list is 10 deep may make sense, but inviting (even without paid tickets) 30-50 runners for such an event is crazy. A recent marathon in Dalian, China offered no paid travel to anyone, but accepted all applications for entry. The official list of invited Kenyans had more than 60 runners, and for sure the list for Ethiopians would have been just as long – all for a race paying the top 8 men and women.
Race directors and agents, need to have a serious discussion on what is the best way to build the invited field for running events. We all know that we need to produce more superstars like Haile Gebrselassie, Wilson Kipsang or Meb Kerflezghi, but also need to market the defending champions and race favorites a lot better.
The most common answer to the question “who won the race?” is usually “some Kenyan”, and that needs to change, by promoting the elite runners better before your event and your winners after the event.
Luis Felipe Posso