Berlin Marathon: The business of Ethiopia’s elite runners

7 mins read

By Peter Wozny / DW

When the running elite take to the start of marathon, it’s not about winning. The business of athletes from Kenya, Tanzania or Ethiopia is lucrative. Success in Berlin sometimes means more than a world title.

Kenenisa Bekele, Birhanu Legese, Leul Gebrselassie and Sisay Lemma are the strongest runners, on paper at least. “It gives us a boost when we can test ourselves at this level,” Legese said. “We don’t have an agreement with one another though. We train in different places and first met one another in Berlin,” Legese added, speaking of the four Ethiopian favorites for the marathon.

There are strategic reasons behind the Ethiopian’s charge at the front, as race director Mark Milde explains. Unlike in previous years, the organizers are not expecting any world records. In 2018, Eliud Kipchoge sensationally finished the 42 kilometers in 2 hours, 1 minute and 39 seconds, improving the world record by more than a minute. “It’s difficult to build on last year. That’s why our focus is different,” Milde said.

In order to make the race attractive for fans, the race organizer’s have put their focus on excitement at the front, ideally right until the end. “To do so, we have looked for runners that can run a time between 2:03 and 2:05 hours. This year, that meant a lot of runners from Ethiopia,” explained the race organizer.

Runners like chess pieces

The runners were put in place like chess pieces, in order to make the race more attractive. A common strategy, one that the athletes also profit from. “Berlin is a chance for me. If I race well here, then it impacts future races,” explained Legese. The value of an athlete is calculated through times and positions. The faster your personal best, the more room the management and the athlete have to demand more sponsorship money.

“If it’s about race or winning bonuses, then Berlin isn’t always the first on the list. But for personal best times, there’s hardly a faster course,” explained Gerard van de Veen. The Dutchman is one of the top managers in the running world. With his agency “Volare Sports”, he looks after a host of elite runners, including Berlin marathon winners Geoffrey Mutai (2012), Wilson Kipsang (2013) and Dennis Kimetto (2014).

Competitions distributed carefully

The 66-year-old and his team don’t just negotiate contracts for the runners, but they also make sure they’re free to focus on their sport. They organize flights, hotels, visas and of course make sure they have places to train and pacesetters to train with. And of course they take care of marketing. In exchange, “Volare Sports” takes a percentage of the income. Fifteen percent is customary. To make sure the results are right, the distribution of competitions must be carefully planned. “We only do this in agreement with the athletes,” assured van de Veen.

In Africa, “Volare Sports” has a huge network of scouts and coaches, but van de Veen likes to search for talent himself. “You have to recognize the talent. I saw Geoffrey Mutai in a youth race in Kenya. He finished second. I was told to sign the winner, but I only wanted Mutai. He had a special way of running.” Mutai later won the Boston, New York and Berlin marathons.

Fraudsters are a danger for runners

The list of his clients’ success is long. The top earners remain the exception among runners though. For most, it’s enough to make a decent living, but not enough for a worry-free future. Van de Veen sees the danger of dodgy advisors or doctors abusing the runners’ situation. “We’re in Europe. The runners are in Africa. We can’t keep an eye on them 24 hours a day.”

Advisors, who promise them more money. Doctors, who guarantee better times. “In Africa, it’s easy to get a hold of doping medicine like EPO. There are doctors that offer it to runners,” explained van de Veen. He keeps his athletes up to date with the latest developments every month, in terms of doping, and puts his focus on deterrence. “They know that doping would be an immediate end of their contract, and likely the end of their career,” said the manager.

Schöneberg over Doha

This is a career in which every second counts and is meticulously planned. Profit comes before medals, which is why the marathon at the Athletics World Championships in Doha this weekend are a relatively unattractive proposition for the runners. A start time near midnight in extreme heat in front of few fans hardly promises good times. For that reason, many top runners have opted for city runs in Europe rather than a world title. Berlin’s district Schöneberg is higher on the list than Doha.

The Olympic Games are different. They are the greatest goal of marathon runners – and that’s the focus in Berlin too as many can book their Olympic ticket if they finish under the 2:12:30 time mark. The race at the front of the pack in Berlin this year is made more intense by the fact that every country can only nominate three runners for the Olympics in Tokyo. That means at least one of the four Ethiopian favorites that crosses the line will do so without realizing their ultimate dream.

1 Comment

  1. As I was heading to bed last night a friend called me to tell me that there was a major marathon run scheduled that may start late into the night. It was the Berlin Marathon. I watched it from its beginning thru the end. Boy, was I rewarded!!! You could see the lions and the angry cheetahs were on the prowl from the outset. At the end that 37-yr old lion came out the winner missing the record by two seconds only. His ‘partners in crime’ were right there after him just a little more than a minute later. Kenenisa number one and the other two lions Birhanu and Sisay number two and number three. That was not all. There was more later one. Those gallant ladies who were lounging like angry cheetahs crossed the finish line one and two!!! All glory to our heroic women!!! The amazing thing I saw last night was how Obbo Kenenisa was running. If you have the video of The Olympiad series on Marathon you can see the similarity of this lion Kenenisa and his late uncle Obbo Abebe Bikila. The way he fixated his head and do the floating with his hand just like Obbo Abebe, that sight just by itself, threw me into a trance man!!! I’m good now!!! I’m good for a week!!!

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