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Million Dollar Kenenisa! says He will invest it in Ethiopia.

Posted: 10 Sep 2009 18:14
by Ethiopians
Queues in front of a notice board, butterflies in one’s stomach before the draws for a lottery are announced, and finger biting before an awards ceremony. Humans are obsessed with how and if they are going to earn or win money that could transform lives. Ethiopian distance running star, Kenenisa Bekele, is no different.

“For me, money is an ingredient that makes things interesting,” he told Fortune. “Without salt, you can not consume food properly. Without money, sport does not mean anything to those who win the races. It is very important.”
But no big payday comes without some degree of stress or certain anxious moments. At the Memorial Van Damme meeting in Brussels, Kenenisa endured a few nervous moments before he would get a chance to collect the winner’s cheque.

With the American sprinter Sanya Richards and Russian pole vaulter, Yelena Isinbayeva, also in contention for a share of the one million dollars IAAF Golden League jackpot before the start of the evening session, the attention was on how much and if ever the trio would cash in by 11 pm local time.

“I know that if I am not careful I could end up with nothing,” said Isinbayeva, who despite dominating her event for many years was stuck at the World Championships in Berlin, Germany. It was here that she plummeted in three attempts over the pole vault and was disqualified.

Kenenisa, too, knew that anything and anyone can spoil his dream of winning athletics’ biggest cash prize.

“In 2006, I lost in my first race and I was really disappointed,” he said of his large pay-cut three years ago where he ended with ‘only’ 83,333 dollars after defeat in the first golden league race in Oslo, Norway.

First up in the evening was Isinbayeva, who started at 4.7m and easily sailed over the bar in her first attempt. But when her opponents failed to clear the next height, 4.75m, Kenenisa knew that she had wrapped up victory.

“Yelena is the best pole vaulter in history and 4.75m is nothing for her,” he would say later. “It would have been a big surprise if she did not win.”

But it did not go so smoothly for the Russian. Having decided to move directly to a would-be World Record height of 5.07m, Isinbayeva failed in all her three attempts. She only won the event on count-back.

A few minutes later, a dominant Richards looked focused and determined out of the starting blocks and powered home for victory in the 400m with a world leading time of 48.83 seconds. With the women doing their bit, the pressure was now on Kenenisa, the only man left in the jackpot chase.

“I am not going to say that it was not on my mind when I entered the race because five per cent or 10pc, it was there,” he said. “The weather was tough and we went fast in the beginning because I wanted to run freely.”

He felt letting others run close to him would make it complicated. But he knew that there was no one in the field who could sprint as well as he would have.

Kenenisa did not really need to move up to another gear until the last 200m of the race where he out-sprinted fellow Ethiopian Imane Merga to take victory in 12:55.31 minutes, closing the last lap in 55 seconds. More significantly, his share of the jackpot came to 333,333 dollars, more money than he has won for an evening’s effort.

“It is a good amount of money, but it is not really that big,” he said about his winning. “But we have all made a big effort to get here. We have won all our five races and that is quite important for the sport. I personally wish we could all get a million dollars each.”

His earnings from the jackpot may have fallen short of 400,000 dollars, but the 27-year old can look back on a lucrative season on the track.
For each of the six races on the circuit, Kenenisa was also paid an additional 16,000 dollars per race taking his prize money winnings to 96,000 dollars for the entire series. He will reportedly get money for public appearances ranging from 50,000 to 80,000 euros (911,500 to 1,458,400 Birr) for each of the six meetings, various time bonuses from organizers, and additional contractual awards from kit sponsors Nike. His world championship 5,000m/10,000m will see him pocket a further 120,000 dollars of prize money.

But his take home pay will be significantly reduced due to high taxes in Europe and a 15pc commission of his winnings to his agent.

“I plan to invest the money on the projects I have started,” he told Fortune. “I am building a hotel and a modern athletics centre. These two projects need a total investment of about 15 million dollars. These prizes will go towards that.”

Kenenisa is building a hotel on Cameroon Street (Tele-Bole), in front of Bole Medhanialem Church.

Nevertheless, he feels he still needs to knock on the doors of the banks for more credit unless he runs 10 or 15 years more to get that kind of money. Many banks would be very happy to do business with the distance running superstar given his success rate and prestige.

“Provided that the projects are feasible, we will be pleased to consider his applications for the loans he wants,” said Brehanu Getaneh, president of United Bank, who missed the race on Friday night driving on the highway from Adama(Nazareth) but thrilled with the athlete’s accomplishments, told Fortune.

Brehanu would also like to see the competence and quality of his management team, besides the developer’s contribution in the projects.

But his earnings from athletics are a far cry to what superstars earn in other sports.

Forbes magazine listed the top 10 of the highest earning sportsmen and women, in 2008; the American golfer Tiger Woods’ earnings topped 115 million dollars, which is roughly around 55 times more than what Kenenisa could expect to earn in 2009. It would also be around one fourth of this year’s Addis Abeba city budget.

Fact Line:
Kenenisa Bekele’s 2009 estimated earnings

Jackpot share:
333,333 dollars

Prize money (for winning six meetings):
96,000 dollars

Appearance fees (average taken at 60,000 euros for seven races):
592,200 dollars

World Championship Prize money:
120,000 dollars

1,141,333 dollars

This figure does not include earnings from Nike endorsements, time bonuses in individual meetings, or other sources of income. It also does not take into account tax and other deductions.

“Of course, we cannot compare running track and other sports,” Kenenisa said. “But I can not say our sport is growing because it is still not helping us win the kind of money other sports do. The athletics, however, is getting more attention because of the success of [Jamaican sprinter] Usain Bolt. That really helps put more attention on the sport.”

Even in his own sport and although he has dominated his events for seven years, Kenenisa has yet to live up to the earning potential of 100m and 200m world record holder, Bolt. The 23-year old Jamaican reportedly earned around 250,000 dollars in appearance fees per race this year and is expected to break earning records later this year when he lines up at an athletics meeting in Daegu, South Korea, for a reported signing fee of half a million dollars.

“I admire Usain,” says a modest Bekele. “He is a great athlete. He is someone created once every 20 years. He breaks records very easily and he has really livened up our sport.”

Bolt expects to be the first 10 million dollar-a-year earning athlete in athletics in the coming few years. He has already signed lucrative sponsorship deals with kit manufacturer Puma, telecommunications company, Digicel, and energy drink Gatorade. In just two years, Bolt has also entered athletics into unknown territory by doing the rounds in the United States talk show market appearing in “The Late Show” with David Letterman and “Good Morning America”.

Kenenisa on Bolt: Not Envious

Kenenisa is not envious of Bolt. In fact, he is happy that the Jamaican is getting all the attention.

“He deserves every bit of attention he is getting because of what he is achieving,” he told Fortune. “People ask me why there is no attention on me and I tell them that the events are different. People give more attention to sprints than distance races.”

Kenenisa may not dance on the track or turn his event into a show, but his efforts never go unnoticed by those in the sport.

“He is nothing like we have seen before in our lives and I do not think we will see such an athlete like him,” says Brussels’ Meeting Director, Wilfried Meert. “We hold a special place for him here in Belgium.”

Christopher Clarey, a sports reporter for the New York Times, feels no different.

“I feel that his efforts are really underappreciated,” he told Fortune. “He has won everything there is to win. He has won them easy. He has won them hard. He may not be a show man, but his actions are really charismatic.”

But for his manager, Jos Hermens, the man tasked with the responsibility of selling Kenenisa’s image, the athlete needs to do more to project himself for the media. The Dutchman, who himself was a world 10,000m record holder in 1976, believes Kenenisa is not a show man.

“Bolt is a natural actor,” he said. “Some people take energy from the public and press conferences. For Kenenisa, these things are like laborous and they do not come naturally to him. He needs to do more to communicate.”

Kenenisa has tried to overcome the communications barrier by improving his English over the last few years, although it is not yet to the level necessary to do hard-hitting interviews with broadcasters. At both the pre-race and post-race press conferences at the Memorial Van Damme, he understood and answered many of the questions in broken English, but required translation and even explanation during some of the interviews.

“His English is not advanced enough for interviews,” commented Saminadra Kunti, a Belgian radio journalist, who works for Radio Scorpio in Louven, Belgium. “It is really very difficult for us to get to know him easily and let our audience know. When he spoke in Amharic, he looked comfortable, but in English, I can see that he was struggling.”

Despite his shortcomings in communications, Kenenisa remains a hero larger than life for many of his compatriots.

Watching the race broadcasted live at the Sheraton’s Office Bar, Dawit Zawde (MD), president of an international humanitarian organization, Africa Humanitarian Action (AHA), did not know how depressed he would have been had Kenenisa lost it. But, he was clear what to do in case of his win.

“I would either have slept peacefully or gone out and partied the night through,” he told Fortune. “But I had a tranquil night.”

“I am thrilled to see an Ethiopian excel at such an international scene.” says Dawit. To him, the victory symbolizes that Ethiopia wins and he is not alone in the generose praise showered upon Kenenisa.

In 2004, Ethiopia’s sensational pop star, Tewodros Kassahun aka Teddy Afro, released a single titled ‘Tarik Tesera’, literally translated as ‘history was set’. It was in honour of Kenenisa’s victory at the Athens Olympics, in the 2004. He often attracts a huge Ethiopian following whenever he races in big meetings in Europe and is chased by fans for his autograph.

“He is my hero,” said Endalemahu Zerihun, an Ethiopian who drove three hours from Amsterdam in neighbouring Holland to watch Kenenisa’s final jackpot race in Brussels. “Our country has a great and long history but we, the youngsters, do not have many modern things to be proud of.”

Endalemahu shares Dawit’s sense of national pride.

“When I see him race and win, it is one of the few times I feel proud that I am an Ethiopian,” he told Fortune.
More than the jackpot...