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Kenyan athletes feel the pinch

29 March 09 02:12 GMT

By Karen Allen
BBC News, Iten

In Iten in Kenya's Rift Valley, people do not walk - they run.

This is the so-called athletics capital of Kenya. The high altitude and clean air produces some of the best athletes in the world.

But as the economic downturn slashes sports sponsorship, their livelihoods are at risk.

Most of the athletes you spot across the valley are modelling the very latest sports clothing.

Nike, Adidas and Puma are household names here. Extraordinary when many of the people survive here on less than $1 (70p) a day.

Product endorsements, appearance fees and big prize money have enabled athletes to carve out a living.

But now the money is drying up and the entire community is feeling vulnerable.

Earnings squeeze

"Athletics is the main industry here," says Martin Keino, a sports marketing specialist and son of athletics icon Kip Keino.

"It has transformed [people's] lives tremendously, they can build homes, invest in real estate and in turn, positively affect the communities they live in."

But now athletes are "having to review their options", he says.

No-one has been able to put a figure on the value of international sports sponsorship in Kenya, but a handful of elite athletes can expect to earn between $3m-$5m a year.

Most, though, are on more modest sums.

The harsh chill of the economic squeeze is beginning to bite even the hardiest of high-altitude runners.

Marathon champion Elias Maindi was due to take part in the Vienna marathon next month, but he has been told not to come.

The sponsors have slashed their budget and they cannot afford to have established athletes appear at their events.

He cannot even go and fund himself - if he breaks his contract with his manager, which sets out his appearance fees, he would face a $5,000 fine.

"I'm disappointed," he says.

"I've taken months to prepare for the race, now I've now got to go and find another event. This could last several years."

Other options

It is the same for Helen Kimutai, one of Kenya's top female athletes.

She and her husband Kenneth now rely on income from their farm rather than profits from the race track to put their four children through school.

Still modelling their branded gear, just back from a run, Kenneth spoke for both of them.

"The crisis is hitting the athletes hard, so we thought that getting some other business would allow us to continue with our daily living," he says.

Other athletes are now setting up small shops, buying plots of land - anything that will yield an income that will enable them to continue to run.

The influence of Kenya's athletes on their neighbourhood is apparent everywhere you look in Iten.

Many of the schools, clinics, petrol stations and hotels here are funded by athletes' money.

So Asbel Kirprop, Kenyan silver medallist in the 1,500 metres at the Beijing Olympics, says any fall-off in sports investment will be far-reaching.

He is putting seven promising youngsters through school and says Kenyan athletes have to meet the high expectations of their community.

Athletics Kenya, the body that represents the country's athletes, is keen to play the crisis down.

But for those who are already seeing their sponsorship cut, the impact could go way beyond the sporting community.

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