Why Did Athletics Kenya Prevent Linet Masai From Winning At Least $100,000?

Kenya's Young World Champion Was Halted Last Minute From Running The Lucrative Zayed Half Marathon

By LetsRun.com's Emory Mort
January 9, 2010

Only hours before Abu Dhabi's Zayed Half-Marathon that features road racing's biggest 1st-place prize purse, a Dutch blog broke the news that 2009 Kenyan Sportswoman of the Year Linet Masai would not debut at the half marathon distance as expected. The post has been translated from Dutch to English by Google translate. We'll admit it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and we're trying to figure out exactly what happened.

The blog mentions that Masai will not be permitted to run, "under penalty of exclusion of all Kenyan athletes from Pace Sports Management (Ricky Simms) to know, her brother Moses, Micah Kogo, Vivian Cheruiyot, Joseph Ebuye, Veronica Nyaruai and 21 others (!?) Reason, she found her too young, but the real reason is the simple fact that the application of Visa for the athletes not using the federation is gone (all Kenyans have first threatened to call back) and no so-called representatives of Kenya Atletics invited." (link here)

Here's the quote from Masai:

"I am so devastated, why are they (AK) telling me this now, why not days ago, I do not know what to do now, maybe [I] should not be here anymore, It feels so unreal. I don't want to put my manager and the athletes in problems, so I need to speak to Ricky first to see what to do” (link here)

Masai Decision Not The First Controversial Move By AK
This is certainly not the first time a prominent Kenyan distance runner had a major problem with an Athletics Kenya decision. Just last year, Sammy Kitwara won the Kenyan 10,000m Berlin WC trials with a brilliant race but was pulled from the Berlin team because he decided to race summer road races in America to make some money.

To read an excellent recap of the Kitwara situation as well as the story of Olympic flag bearer Grace Momanyi being kicked off Kenya's Olympic team in 2008, click on LetsRun.com's Robert Johnson's July 21st Week That Was for a well-researched piece on "Athletics Kenya simply being Athletics Kenya" or in other words being completely arbitrary and at times exceedingly controlling.

The latest decision, however, is unique for two reasons: 1. The Zayed Half-Marathon provides a $300,000 check to the winner and $100,000 to second place (yes, those are US dollars), and 2. Linet Masai is a Kenyan national hero and one of their best-ever female athletes.

Ricky Simms and PACE Sports Management sum up Masai's credentials well in this pre-Zayed release:

12th IAAF World Athletics Championships - Day One World 10,000m Champion Linet Masai (KEN) will make [her] highly-anticipated half marathon debut in the 2010 Zayed Half Marathon in Abu Dhabi on Thursday January 7th.

Since exploding on the world scene in 2007 in Mombasa where she won the IAAF World Junior Cross Country title, Linet Masai has gone from strength to strength.  In 2008 she placed 4th in a new World Junior 10,000m record in the Olympic Games in Beijing.  In 2009 she took the 10,000m gold in the IAAF World T&F Championships in Berlin having earlier in the year won silver in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Amman.  Post-Berlin she recorded one of the fastest-ever times for 10 miles on the road with an excellent 50.38 to win the Dam tot Damloop race in Holland.  She ends 2009 ranked No.1 for 10,000m by T&F News, was voted Kenyan Sportswoman of the Year and named Race Results Weekly Runner of the Year.  

With that kind of talent, Masai has the immediate potential to win big money races. And for someone who is not a marathon icon on par with Paula Radcliffe, Sammy Wanjiru or Haile Gebrselassie, there is no bigger money race than Sheikh Zayed's race in Abu Dhabi. Track and distance running insiders see this race as a total enigma as the race pays out $1 million to females alone in their 20-deep award structure. In most half marathons, winning $20-30,000 is a once- or twice-a-year highlight reserved only for true half marathon aces. At Zayed you're going to get paid in that range for a 4th-10th finish.

It appears that Masai, who should be a national hero as she's probably their best hope to beat the top Ethiopians for world and Olympic gold medals in the coming years, was basically robbed of at least $100,000 by this last minute decision. To say she was a lock for the Zayed win is foolish as Kenyan Mary Keitany is an absolute terror at the 21.1km distance (she won Zayed by over 2 minutes and won '09 worlds by over 60 seconds). But it's easy to see Masai finishing at least in 2nd, likely at least challenging Keitany more than runner-up Kenyan Philes Ongori.

Why Did Athletics Kenya Pull The Plug On Masai In Zayed? Control... not Money
As we stated above, we do not know exactly why Masai was prohibited from running. However, based on experience we can make the following educated guesses:

Unlikely reason: Problems between PACE and AK. Dozens of Kenyans and Ethiopians ran the race, including other members of Ricky Simms' PACE Sports Management, who as far as we know have an excellent relationship with Athletics Kenya.

Unlikely reason: Travel Visa troubles outside of Athletics Kenya. We would be surprised if international travel details were the problem as all sides (Athletics Kenya, PACE, Abu Dhabi) would normally want a runner like Masai in this top race. When a Kenyan athlete seeks permission to travel abroad to race and applies for a Visa, Athletics Kenya would likely be involved in granting permission, so perhaps this, as we get into more below, is the real problem.

More likely, but completely unsubstantiated theory: Masai has challenged AK's authority. Our best guess is that Athletics Kenya is upset that 2007 World Junior XC champion Linet Masai has not been taking part in AK's national cross country series to qualify her for their 2010 World Cross Country team in March. If Masai doesn't do any of the trial races and is selected for the world team on basis of her absolutely legitimate credentials alone, it will be seen as a sign to other top athletes that they don't have to pay attention to Athletics Kenya's wishes.

We like our theory, but wish we could find some rock-solid proof of it. There is some circumstantial evidence, however, that seems convincing. The latest Kenyan xc trial race (the 6th of the 7-race series) took place around the same time as Zayed (link here). It was to be held in Mt. Elgon, and according to Nation, "Over 500 athletes are expected as AK makes its first stop in Mt Elgon to honour the area for its contribution in track and field. Three athletes – 1972 Munich Olympics 3,000m steeplechase silver medallist Ben Jipcho, Linet Masai and Edith Masai – will stand out tall."

Aha! Masai was to be honored by Athletics Kenya at their local xc race, the inaugural race in the region.

In fact, our theory is also backed up by our Dutch blog source, which explains what Masai did instead of Zayed: "After consulting with her manager and the organization [Masai] decided ... to start in the local 6km, where they can earn up to $ 3000 U.S."

This would hardly be a surprising move for Athletics Kenya to block an athlete from running a foreign race in favor of a local race where she would not only be a guest of honor but also compete in and legitimize AK's cross country qualification circuit. But for Masai, the chance was there in Zayed to not only take on world best Mary Keitany, but to win huge money that 99.9% of Kenyan runners can only dream about.

Cross Country: 37th IAAF World Championships-Junior WomenAnother likely factor is gender. Kenya is a heavily male-dominated society, so Masai likely knew she had virtually no choice but to stay home and run the local race against excellent cross country runner Mercy Cherono (right). To ignore and embarrass AK by running Zayed would have likely meant severe punishment for Masai, perhaps even more severe than for males like Kitwara who have upset AK in the past. She has few viable options but to obey. For example, if she got super upset and tried to change nationalities AK would likely block her and make her ineligible at major competitions for years.

Most importantly, there also seem to be hints in the translated message above that if Masai ran Zayed then other Kenyans in her management or training group would be punished in some way. This type of bullying - threatening Masai's friends and peers with punishment for Masai's actions (which we can not confirm actually happened, though by our estimations sounds likely) - seems particularly heavy-handed and paralyzing.

When it comes down to it this seems to be a situation where AK decided to show who is boss without any regard to the money at stake. It just so happened that the race Masai was pulled from was the most lucrative prize-money road race in world history. Arbitrary Athletics Kenya didn't care. They would rather have the now famous Masai run on a high school course in Mt. Elgon and wave to the crowd at the ceremony than fly to the middle east, even if racing in Abu Dhabi likely would lead to a life-altering paycheck.

Perspective For Members Of Non-Imposing Track Organizations
If this theory of ours is true, it is a great shame that a world star would be treated in this way and basically denied the opportunity to make the most of her talent. It should remind runners in most countries how lucky they are to have the relative freedom they enjoy. In the US, for example, the USATF does not encourage or force American stars like Lolo Jones to run the financially struggling Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden (Jan 29, tickets here), and they actually go so far as to send a US team to a virtually pointless meet in Great Britain the next day (Jan 30) instead (article link here). We believe USATF, who have publicly announced financial support for Millrose in the past months, are likely trying to please all customers with this decision, but in fact might be swinging so far the other way (total freedom of athletes and agents) that it hurts the sport and the major venues more than it helps.

WORLD CUP SHEIK ZAYED

Photo: Sheikh Zayed's Soccer Stadium

How Does Zayed Happen With No Non-United Arab Emirates Press On Site?
Speaking of the state of the sport of track and field and elite distance running, it borders on ridiculous in the first place that - as far as we can tell - no British or American news agency was in Abu Dhabi to cover what can easily be argued to be the richest road race in world history (tied with Zayed's 2008 version (recap and top results here)... in case you're wondering Sheikh Zayed took a year off from the race in 2009).

Had Masai been allowed to run, it would have been a gigantic matchup between her and Keitany... but barely a soul outside of Abu Dhabi would have known it was happening! Despite a startlist that included stars like 2009 Boston Marathon Champion Deribe Merga and Sam Wanjiru (later it came out that he was scratched), we still have been unable to find official results for all of the elites (2:04:27 marathoner Duncan Kibet was 9th, but we have no idea where Merga finished or if he even started the race).

Sheikh Zayed had millions to give away in prize money but didn't think to get a New York Times or London Times reporter on a plane to cover the race and get some interviews? How about a website that lists race results for all 20 money winners? We at LetsRun.com are kicking ourselves for not getting over there for some 100% world exclusives.

Word is, Zayed is going to kick up the ante to the full marathon in 2011. If this comes to fruition, you can bet you'll see us, and hopefully Linet Masai, live from Abu Dhabi in 2011.

To read our recap of the Zayed Half Marathon, click here.

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