Responsible runners, responsible leaders – running for economic development Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
In the last decades,

Kenyan and Ethiopian runners have dominated middle and long distance running at Olympics and other global athletics events. Many people have been asking not only the secret behind their running success but also how their success in running affects the country’s economy.

Following Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, one can note that they come from poor and rural background, their diet is rich with carbohydrates and has low fat; they run to escape poverty and walk long distances from a very early age; hard work and dedication in training is key, and their focus is sharpened by the success they see around them. For children living in poor rural areas of Kenya and Ethiopia, to run, sleep and eat is better than ploughing the land and looking after livestock.

In 1960 Abebe Bikila became the first Ethiopian to win an Olympic gold medal when he won a marathon running barefoot; and again in 1964 wearing running shoes. Not a long time ago in theBarcelona Olympics in 1992, who can forget the duel between the Ethiopian Derartu Tulu and South African Elana Meyer in women’s 10 000m final? The speed of Derartu Tulu’s last lap was unbelievable, and that gave her the gold medal. Derartu Tulu became the first Ethiopian woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

It was not long after Abebe Bikila’s 1960s success that the first Kenyan won an Olympic gold medal – in 1968 in Mexico Neftali Temu won the Olympic gold medal in 10 000m. The same year, two other Kenyans won gold medals, Amos Biwot in Steeplechase and Kipchoge Keino 1500m. Interestingly at the 1968 Olympics the world witnessed the duel between the Kenyan Neftali Temu and Ethiopian Mamo Wolde in the 10 000m, with Temu winning in sprint finish. Could this have marked the beginning of rivalry between the two countries in middle- and long-distance running? In 1996 and 2000 Olympics the battle between the Kenyan Paul Tergat and Ethiopian Haile Gebresillasie was witnessed in 10 000m with Haile winning narrowly on both occasions.

Success at Olympic level brings global exposure for these countries and the world is starting to admire and appreciate the achievements of these nations in athletics. This is sure to attract tourism and investments by global brands in sport like Nike, Adidas, Puma etc. Ethiopia’s great distance runner Haile Grebresillasie has been supported by Adidas. It was reported that Haile earns about USD150 000 and an additional USD400 000 when he wins a competition. The prize money has enabled him to invest in many businesses in Ethiopia and has created employment, as discussed below.

The small town in Kenya called Iten is where middle- and long-distance Olympic champions and world record breakers are natured and produced. It is in this small town that in the early hours of the morning you will see a group Kenyan runners accompanied by super stars. The town is surrounded by hills at an altitude 2400m above sea level. High altitude training increases the ability of blood to carry oxygen and build lung capacity. There is no disturbance from the traffic and there is year-round sunshine.

This town is considered to be a perfect environment for long distance training. Iten also attracts non-Kenyan runners, British distance runners like Mo Farah, Paula Redcliffe have been seen in this town preparing for their major athletics events. In past, other countries like China have come to this town for training camps. Due to its attraction to top international middle- and long-distance runners, tourism has boosted the economy. Tourists also come for running safaris., and accommodation is equipped with sports facilities. Iten is also attracting foreign direct investment – recently the London marathon association has expressed a desire to build a synthetic athletics track.

The success of Kenya in middle- and long-distance running has opened an opportunity for entrepreneurs. A Kenyan-born entrepreneur has teamed up with an American to develop the first Kenyan high performance running shoes called Edna Iten. The development of the running is inspired by Kenyan runners. Some of the top Kenyan runners are testing the shoe and are involved in its development. Other countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, China, and Netherlands are supporting the development of Enda Iten. Once the running shoe is complete, it will be 100% made in Kenya and exported globally. This will boost the country’s economic activity through job creation and tax revenue.

Similarly, many Ethiopian athletic heroes and heroines have invested their hard earned prize money in businesses in Ethiopia. Their investments have created job opportunities for Ethiopians and are creating tax revenue for the nation. Some Ethiopian-born athletes that compete for other countries are also coming back to invest. Maryam Yusuf is an Ethiopian-born middle-distance runner competing for Bahrain. She has built a hotel at a cost of over $8 million and employs about 200 people. She is also planning to invest in other sectors such as agriculture and construction in Ethiopia.

Other athletes that have invested their prize money in businesses in Ethiopia include Haile Gebresillasie (2x Olympic gold medallist), Derartu Tulu (2x Olympic gold medallist), Sileshi Sihine (2x Olympic silver medallist), Tirunesh Dibaba (2x Olympic gold medallist), and Kenenisa Bekele (3x Olympic gold medallist). As Ethiopia continues to produce successful middle- and long-distance runners, more investment in business is expected.

The lesson we learn from Ethiopian and Kenyan runners is that their hard conditions under which they grow prepares them for a successful career in athletics. The dominance of these countries in middle and long distance in the last decades indicates that successful athletes can inspire the youth. In addition, their success at global athletics events has a positive impact in the wider economy as they a create new businesses using their prize money and leadership responsibly.


Support Stellenbosch Business School to grow the Future Fund.




Want to stay in touch with the Stellenbosch Business School community? Sign up and receive newsletters from our desk to your inbox.