The African athletes running marathons for cash in China


It was a Sunday in Hengdian, a small town in eastern China thats famous for being home to the worlds largest film studio.

Some 25,000 runners had come from all over the country. Against the backdrop of a nearly life-size replica of the Forbidden City, the Hengdian Marathon felt like a carnival. 

Music was blasting. Chinese runners of all ages, in full athletic gear or loud costumes, busied themselves with warming up, visiting the many sponsored booths and taking selfies.

But a small group of athletes tall, lean and African didnt come for the fun.

Their eyes were firmly set on the cash prizes: $4,600 to the winners of the full marathon, and $1,500 for winners of the half-marathon.

Before the starting gun was fired, the African athletes jockeyed for the frontrunner position, hoping to gain precious extra steps over their rivals.

Standing on the sidelines, Obed Tiony, 29, was equally nervous. He had paid for six athletes to come to Hengdian to join the race, and he would take a cut if they win.

Tiony came to China in 2011. He's one year away from obtaining his graduate degree in finance. 

Mutual benefit

Tiony, who came to China from Kenya to pursue a college degree in 2011, is a marathon agent. A professional runner before coming to China, one month after arriving in the country he entered the Suzhou half-marathon. To his surprise, he easily came first-runner up and won a $1,500 cash prize.

In China, there are so many competitions, and they need professional athletes, he says. I realized I could at least contact one or two people back home so they could come and run here.

In 2014, he started arranging for Kenyan runners to compete in marathons in China. The athletes didnt speak Mandarin, meaning they needed assistance with logistics and training.

I buy their flights and hotels everything actually, because not all of them can afford to buy these things, Tiony says. They earn something out of it. I put myself at risk by paying for their accommodation, flights and food. Of course they will have to refund me after competing.

Tiony gets 15% commission on the prize money, if his racers win.

He says the races in China are less competitive. The cash awards can reach $45,000. Thats a lot compared to the average annual income of $1,500 in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Hengdian Marathon is a medium-sized race.

There are about 20 marathon agents in China working with African runners, but Tiony is the only African in the business.

Every athlete he brings from overseas runs three races at most, and he usually signs up two of his athletes for each event. Runners whove just arrived will join the full marathons, while athletes whove already completed races run less taxing half-marathons instead.

He has been doing very well. After all, hes a local, says marathon agent You Ding. We are rivals but we also cooperate. Its a very odd relationship.

Tiony works with more than 200 athletes from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania. Last year, his runners took part in 250 races in China. At a race last year in the port city of Dalian in northeastern China, Tionys runner came first won $20,000 - the largest cash award won so far by his athletes.    

Races on the rise

Tiony arrived in China at the right time. Gripped with marathon fever, the country has seen explosive growth in the number of races it holds.

In 2011, there were only 22 races. In 2017, 1,102 races were organized in 234 cities, according to a report by the Chinese Athletic Association. Nearly five million people participated.

Elite athletes are needed in marathons in China. 

Organizers want to enhance the influence of races, and diversity of participants is one of the most important indicators, said Liu Dongfeng, a sports management professor at the Shanghai University of Sports.

Races can be big business for the host cities. Take the eastern coastal city of Xiamen, which organizes one of the biggest annual marathons in China.

This January, the event attracted about 18,000 runners and generated $18 million in revenue. On the national level, China aspires to a sports industry worth $770 billion by 2025, compared to $230 billion in 2016.

Valuing athletes

Many of Tionys runners are China veterans.

I would come to China to run every time if I had the chance, says Nancy Chepngetich Kimaiyo, who made four trips to China last year. Its not weird that they have so many marathons in China. It shows they value athletes, and they love people running.

But victory doesn't always come easily. The 23 year-old, who works as a police officer in Kenya, is seeing an increasing number of international competitors.

Tiony still runs for fun occasionally. 

Purity Jerono, 26, also from Kenya, made her first trip to China last year. She says the money she won from racing helped her buy a home.

One of the most common complaints about running in China isnt the venues or the sometimes haphazard organization - its the weather.

In June and July, the weather is hot and we dont have such temperatures in Kenya, says Kimaiyo. It affects my performance, and I have to train for it.

Risky venture

African athletes usually perform better than local runners, but of course theres no guarantee. Tiony doesnt want to disclose how much he makes every month, but admits that sometimes, he loses money.

At the finish line of the Hengdian Marathon, a Chinese runner was the first to cross the finish line for the mens half-marathon: surprising himself, Tiony and other agents.

Two of Tionys male runners lost their way during the race, due to questionable signage, and no one put them back on track. They werent even among the first 30 athletes to complete the race.

This has happened to other people before, but not to me, says a resigned Tiony. He decides not to confront the organizers, in order to preserve a working relationship.

Tiony hugged Negasa Gadise Gudisa, who came first in the women's half-marathon in Hengdian. 

But his crew doesnt lose entirely. One of his runners, Negasa Gadise Gudisa, is crowned the womens half-marathon champion and wins $1,500. Edwin Kipkosgei Kiprop and Legesse Tseginesh Mekonnin also picks up $1,500 after taking the second-runner up prize in the men and womens full marathon.

Tiony tries to hide his disappointment. I cannot blame my athletes. It's good. We've got one lady who came in first, he said. We cannot do anything about it. Let's move on.

In China, theres always the next race.

Source: https://www.inkstonenews.com

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