By Denis Jjuuko
When Joshua Kiprui Cheptegei won his first gold medal at the just concluded Commonwealth games in Gold Coast, Australia, the official verified Twitter account of the Uganda Police Force quickly congratulated him as “our officer.” Responding with his own verified Twitter account, Cheptegei quickly reminded them that he was no longer part of the force. That exchange reminded me of Cheptegei’s performance at the World Cross Country championship in Kololo a year earlier when he collapsed towards the finish line — something that the social media mob feasted on.
Like they say, unlike failure, success has many parents. A lot of people including those that demonized him basked in glory as Cheptegei together with colleagues Stella Chesang, Mercyline Chelangat, Juma Miiro, and Solomon Munyo Mutai all brought home medals. I might be wrong, but these guys succeeded without many people giving them any support. In the case of Cheptegei, we even ridiculed him when he first failed yet we should know one fall has never stopped a kid from eventually walking.
This individual success, which we now want to be part of is something we must seriously think about by turning Kapchorwa into a centre of athletics excellence. The terrain and the altitude is freely available. The talent as we saw with the games and in fact before with the Kipsiros of this world is immense. Most of this talent doesn’t have what they need to succeed. That is why very few come up once in a while. Yet every time a runner wins a medal, we go into high gear on how we are going to build this and that in Kapchorwa before we abandon the idea and concentrate on something else.
To turn Kapchorwa into an athletics hub, the starting point should be education. I actually mean private education where one can invest into the business of sports. What parents in Kapchorwa most likely do is to send the future Cheptegeis into normal school where they are burdened with lots of stuff that may never help them during their lifetime. A specialized school for athletes should be developed in the area. Here, the kids who have potential are identified and enrolled. They learn about athletics, their bodies, and train all day. They are taught how to read, write and use the Internet among other courses so that by the time they are 14, they are already competing in their age categories. That way, they will grow up being competitive and focused on running.
The Kiprotichs and Cheptegeis one can even say that won by accident. I think being in Police and Prisons were they earned little pay may have motivated them into running. Had they joined other professions where they earned much more, probably they would have given up on running. Yet as we know, sport is very lucrative. More lucrative than most professions.
This means that these athletes at such an academy would be taken care of by the investor who can find a business model on how to benefit from the prize money when they win or attendance fees. I am sure the likes of Nike and Adidas can easily bring in the dollars to offset some of the costs. The investor would have to pay them a decent salary so that they are less burdened with looking for some jobs for survival purposes especially those that are above 18 and have families. That way, they would focus on athletics.
Uganda as a country could waive off taxes for such an investor because the country would benefit a lot. The Ugandan flag was raised high several times during the commonwealth games with a very big global audience watching. When Cheptegei stepped on the platform to receive his first gold medal and after the national anthem had been sung, the commentator spent almost a minute talking about how beautiful Uganda is with an immense authentic culture. The advertising value equivalent of that minute was worth probably a million dollars.
I strongly believe that the Kenyan and Ethiopian economy have greatly benefited from such commentaries whenever their athletes win or take part in such events. A lot of people hear about the country and probably put it on a list of those to visit for tourism or investment. The likes of Usain Bolt have been to the Masai Mara and that comes with great free publicity. I don’t think the Masai Mara is any different from Kidepo National Park. That is why the investor can have a tax holiday and supported in any ways possible.
The reason Kiprotich and Cheptegei and others have been able to win was because they saw that it was possible when Moses Kipsiro won. They got inspired and started taking running seriously. They realized that a career could be developed out of this. If a business minded person created an academy and developed proper track facilities for these runners, many would be able to win medals or participate in the lucrative championships and marathons. Since we also love talking about PPP —public private partnerships, the government could also go for that model but leave the investor to take care of the business side of the project. The investor, if not a quack one, would be able to get a decent return on investment.
If we don’t do or encourage any strategic planning as a country, the Cheptegeis will once in a while come up and run for Uganda and win. But we may not be able to get the necessary consistency that is needed to position Uganda as a destination for athletics. I don’t think the government should be burdened with setting up this academy, it is time those interested in business and have the required resources thought about this.
The writer is a media consultant and businessman. firstname.lastname@example.org