The athlete and media zone at the Olympic Games can be one of the most chaotic places on earth.
It is the first place where athletes who have just finished their competitions recount their performances for packs of awaiting journalists. It is the place where stories are made, history books created and then rewritten, and controversies brew. Depending on the athlete and the type of event, the pack can range from just a handful to hundreds.
Minutes after Tirunesh Dibaba won the women’s 5,000m gold to complete her remarkable double at the Bird’s Nest national stadium in Beijing, China, only a dozen reporters waited to hear what the star had to say.
There were the regular news agency writers who waited nervously for Tirunesh to give them the formal quote or two in order to complete their obligatory gold medallist stories. A few of the hardcore running publications and some television cameras also sought out Tirunesh so she could put her performance into perspective for them.
But there was little fanfare and very few of the big networks and major newspapers attended.
Tirunesh, although she became the first woman to achieve the feat in Olympic history, was definitely not receiving a history-maker’s treatment from the international press.
“We have all seen it before,” says Simon Turnbull, an athletics reporter with British daily The Independent. “We know how good she really is and we have all come to expect this from her.”
Dog bites man stuff then. But the story does not end there.
A few minutes later, after the women’s 5000m medal ceremony, the 23-year old entered the press conference room at the stadium. Again, only a few journalists waited for the Ethiopian star, while the room which can seat around 100 people, was jam-packed a few days earlier when Jamaican Usain Bolt completed the 100m and 200m sprint double, with a world record time in the longer event.
None of them expected fireworks or an Oscar performance, but they did not want to hear Tirunesh state the obvious either.
“What were your tactics in the race?” asked one.
“I followed the leader,” Tirunesh said.
“Why in a race you knew you could win would you never take the lead until the final lap?” followed another reporter.
“I came here to represent my country,” Tirunesh said. “My major objective was to win two gold medals.”
Dog bites man stuff again. It is painstakingly obvious that the objective of nearly every runner is to win gold by virtue of looking at their running vest, it is not rocket science to figure out that Tirunesh, like 30 other Ethiopians, came to represent her country in Beijing.
“She has been running internationally for the last six years, but she still remains a mystery to many of us,” says Mark Butler, a statistician who compiles biographical summaries and event information for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the BBC. “It would have added a lot of colour to the stories journalists write and generated a lot of interest.”
Even by her own admission, Tirunesh is a woman who likes to do most of her talking on her track. Her fluid, efficient running style and her never-say-die attitude even at the most testing times make her a hero for her compatriots and the envy of other runners.
Her careful and chosen words off it, however, are doing very little to add to her reputation. Despite her achievements, which continue to push back the the boundaries of women’s distance running, her shy and introverted demeanour could very well cost her the opportunity to be crowned the 2008 IAAF World Athlete of the Year in the short term and many sponsorship deals in the years to come.
“It is an African problem,” says seasoned Kenyan athletics journalist, Omulo Okoth, who has covered African athletics for the last 20 years. “African athletes do not project themselves well for the media. A lot of it has to do with education. When they earn money, they drop out of school and miss the chance to understand the world around them in a better way.”
The scope of the problem is not narrow and its consequences are far-reaching. A lack of real personalities creates frustration, followed by hardly any interest among journalists. This in turn contributes to the athletes failing to commend airwaves or newspaper headlines, which is of course detrimental to the athletes’ earning power and leads to a lack of interest in athletics.
Since international athletics derives its income from broadcasting rights and sponsorship, lack of visibility and readership are like nails to the sport’s coffin.
“We are always looking for something new,” says Turnbull. “People in Europe are used to Ethiopians and Kenyans dominating distance running. Unless there is a unique personality, a different story, or a European getting closer in performance to the Africans, it is hard to get people to appreciate it.”
And when the international media is no longer interested, the sponsors and big money meeting organizers also refrain from associating themselves with the athletes or the sport to promote their products and services.
“I can tell you outright that Tirunesh will not earn as much as Yelena Isinbayeva (Russia’s Olympic, world pole vault champion and world record holder) or Blanka Vlasic (Croatia’s world high jump champion) in appearance money,” says Alfons Juck, meeting manager for the annual Zlata Tretra Grand Prix meeting in Ostrava, Czech Republic. “There is no secret to this. We all want to promote our competitions using stars.”
The athletes could earn a lot of money if they conduct themselves well in front of the media, according to Okoth.
“Companies are looking for media friendly people,” he said. “They will not invest on someone who does not know how to talk properly in public.”
For the moment at least, Tirunesh is not offering much else to spectators.
“Isinbayeva has her summersault and Vlasic has her dance,” says Butler. “I mean this with the greatest amount of respect, but while winning is great, it becomes a problem when people take it for granted. You need to give the public something new.”
The public relations crisis is a problem that the IAAF is trying to address. The world governing body conducts media training for its world class athletes, including Ethiopians and Kenyans, and encourages them to learn English in order to communicate better with the international media.
While athletes such as Kenenisa Bekele, a runner who was also tight-lipped at the beginning of his career but is now answering questions in English, have responded well to the endeavours, many runners like Tirunesh remain oblivious to the issue.
“They should project themselves better to be more famous,” says Okoth. “In Kenya, there was once an effort to provide athletes with media training. The athletes did not even attend. I do not think they even understand that this is important. This is a big disservice to the sport.”
Tirunesh and her compatriots are not helped by the fact that little or no information comes out of their country about them or their sport. Despite being the country’s most successful sport, athletics does not enjoy even half of the newspaper columns or television slots as international football in Ethiopia.
“We really do not get much news coming out of Ethiopia,” says Butler. “As a statistician, I would have to be a detective when compiling information about Ethiopians for use by the international media. For instance, until recently, we did not know that Ethiopians used their first names as the main name.”
In contrast, athletes like Isinbayeva and Bolt have continued to reap the rewards for their openness to the media and ability to communicate. Isinbayeva counts Adidas and Toshiba among her list of sponsors. In addition to his apparel sponsor, Puma, Bolt has also signed up contracts with Digicel, BMW, and Virgin Media to lead their various marketing campaigns. Despite dominating her event for nearly six years, Tirunesh’s only sponsorship contract is with Mizuno.
Her success on the commercial front is also important for kick-starting the woman’s marketing revolution. Abebe Bikila proved that Ethiopians can run fast. Miruts Yifter showed he can triumph despite old age. Derartu Tulu disproved the myth that Ethiopian women belonged in the kitchen. Haile Gebreselassie taught young runners that they can change their lives through the sport. Tirunesh stands a realistic chance of combining good looks and sporting success to create commercial success, if only she can open up to the media and get over her language problems.
“Tirunesh is extremely attractive and someone who is very marketable for sponsors,” says Liu Xingdao, a Hong-Kong based news correspondent. “She just needs a personality and good communication skills. She already has the most important ingredients. She is an outstanding runner and she has all the looks.”