Why for some, it is happily never after

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020 00:00 |
Coach Maurice Odumbe, accompanied by batting coach Wynand De Ridder with the Kenyan team during a training session in preparation for the Africa T20 in Uganda last year. INSET: Odumbe walks to the pitch. Photo/PD/PHILIP KAMAKYA

Sports has been credited with changing the fortunes of athletes with some turning from paupers into instant millionaires while some are converted from virtual unknowns into overnight celebrities.

However, how they handle the instant wealth and fame varies from one person to another while for others, it has been devastating. 

Stories of athletes who fell from grace have abound galore all over the world with Kenya not being an exception.

From footballers, runners, boxers and cricket players who lived large but now cannot afford a single meal to those who rolled in luxury cars and now walk to their destinations, the stories are endless. 

In 2015, Kenyans watched in disbelief when cricket great Maurice Odumbe narrated his heart wrenching story of survival on the JKL show with TV host Jeff Koinange.

“From riding in BMWs to using a boda boda, sometimes I cannot believe it Jeff,” a tearful Odumbe told Koinange on the KTN show.

Odumbe’s fall from grace began in 2004 when he was banned from the game for alleged match-fixing and his fortunes took a turn for the worse.

Like most sports heroes Kenya has produced, Odumbe was quickly relegated to the dustbins of history and for a man who was part of the Golden Generation that took Kenyan cricket to great heights such as the semi-final of the 2003 World Cup and played in major tournaments, earning big buck, this was hard to take.

Odumbe—who has maintained his innocence to date—has since rebuilt his life and is back in the game, serving as Kenya’s head coach but the ban took away everything he worked so hard for and it has never been the same.

Sorry athletes 

Another moving story is that of boxer Kenyan boxer Suleiman Bilali, the 2000 Summer Olympics light flyweight quarter-finalist, who has been battling a mental illness after being abandoned.

In the Rift Valley, the high-altitude region that is home to the vast majority of Kenya’s elite athletes, the belief in running as an escape from poverty remains prevalent, but few among the thousands of young athletes who flock to training camps each year ever make a living from running. 

Even for those who ascend to the sport’s pinnacle, long-term financial stability is rarer than most realise, even if they win one of the world’s biggest marathons.

Benjamin Limo, the 2005 world champion in the 5,000 metres and a former Kenyan representative to the IAAF (now World Athletics), the sport’s governing body, estimated that only 25 percent of the country’s former top-level athletes were living in a “sustainable” manner.

Pemela Jelimo wins the 800m at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China.  Photo/FILE

“More than half are really struggling,” Limo told the New York Times last year. 

Former 800m 2008 Olympics champion Pamela Jelimo and former Rotterdam marathon champion Duncan Kibet are among a large number of runners who lost their fortunes for different reasons.

Jelimo was the first Kenyan woman to win an Olympic gold medal and also the first Kenyan to win the now defunct Golden League Jackpot which came with a $1 million (Sh70 million at the time). 

However, a combination marital issues, poor advice and rogue managers saw her lose most of her fortunes which also affected her form and she never returned to those heights again.

For Kibet, who earned an estimated $180,000 (Sh18 million) after clocking a personal best of 2:07:53 to win the 2009 Rotterdam Marathon, a groin injury later kept him from finishing marathons in Berlin and London. 

His fitness waned, and two years after his Rotterdam triumph, he was essentially broke and out of work.

Experts attribute a number of reasons for the sudden change in fortunes for these big-name athletes who never recover after losing their money.

“Career transitioning takes a real psychological blow to most athletes post-active era and to some extent end up depressed.

For ages, they have put in the work and suddenly it disappears especially when sound investment was not done.

It is a dicey situation considering most of them come from humble backgrounds and when they are not exposed to proper training on discipline and money utilisation, it becomes a problem in the future,” sports psychologist Kanyali Ilako told People Sport in Nairobi last week.

Sports Consultant Cynthia Mumbo of Sports Connect Africa said: “Most athletes who end up broke are more likely than not ignorant which is dangerous.

If one is not taught financial discipline early in their careers, then most definitely they will fail.

Athletes take off during a past race at Kasarani Stadium. Photo/PD/FILE

At the same time, I want to strongly believe that some managers and even agents take advantage of their subjects, sweep them clean and vanish.” 

Value of investment

However, former AFC Leopards and Harambee Stars forward Boniface Ambani, who runs a sports merchandise shop, blames most of those problems to the attitude of some athletes.

“The kind of ignorance you see around is quite worrying and the painful bit is that most of the sportsmen are not willing to take advice.

There is a difference between exposed and localised athletes. Those exposed are prepared and taught the value of investment out there but those based here never get that.

If you follow some of the sorry tales, it all boils down to lacking a plan and purpose for their money and they are always bound to fail,” said Ambani.

Boxing promoter Caleb Kuya of Osaga Promotions is also of the opinion that financial education plays a key part in an athlete’s post-active era. 

“In a sportsman’s life, the one thing which is critical is future focus. One has to have a ‘Plan B’ because the life-span of an athlete is very short and could even be curtailed by things like injuries or lack of form.

My concern is most of our athletes have no financial capability or reliable advisors and this always turns out really costly.

At the same time, lack of humility when one gets big money also see them fall hard,” said Kuya.

Sports marketer Raymond Oruo of Red House is of a different opinion, blaming the country’s education system for not preparing such sportsmen for the realities of life.

“I will not be quick to judge the athletes because they are human and could fall like anybody else.

However, our curriculum over the years has stifled certain aspects of development like sports.

A lot of our sportsmen and women might get lucky to get early gigs especially with shrewd mangers.

However, almost none is taught how to manage their money unless they are based abroad,” Oruo told People Sport.

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