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Just Do It? Just Let Them Be

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, February 11, 1998; Page C1

Michael Wilbon

Initially it might have seemed merely novel, the athletic giant Nike sponsoring the Kenyan effort to turn runners who'd never even seen snow into competitive cross-country skiers. But you put anything on an Olympic stage and it can become controversial. And in this case for all the wrong reasons.

What on many levels seems like simply a nice story about a Kenyan qualifying for the Winter Olympics for the first time is now being greeted with extreme skepticism, if not downright cynicism, by a growing chorus that sees the union of Nike and the Kenyans as something just short of sinister.

The moral indignation centers not around Phillip Boit, who qualified for these Games and will compete Thursday (Wednesday, 7 p.m. EST) in the 10-kilometer classical cross-country event, but around the notion that Nike has somehow exploited the poor Kenyans and the whole thing is nothing more than a heartless gimmick to make a new commercial and another pot of gold for Nike.

After being asked for the umpteenth time by a U.S. reporter whether his countrymen were simply being exploited by big bad Nike, Charles Mukora, the chairman of Kenya's national Olympic committee and a member of the International Olympic Committee, smiled an annoyed smile and said: "Who is exploiting whom, my friend? We've had a sponsorship contract with Nike since [1991]. We could not have gotten Phillip here [or his alternate and training partner, Henry Bitok] without Nike's assistance. Because of this first step we are going to be on the program of international winter sports from now on. . . . These guys are going to be heroes in their country. We are encouraging Kenyan youth, through our embassies, who live in Scandinavia, Canada, Germany, the United States and so on to participate in winter sports. I have signed contracts for cultural exchanges with South Africa, Italy, the Netherlands and Canada. Sports is the activity that allows for this kind of expansion. It's the one thing we do together in the world. It's the human discipline everyone understands and promotes."

Mukora had to pause for breath. The concept behind turning these guys into skiers might have been a fluke-there are conflicting explanations of how it began-but what's happened subsequently has been plotted carefully. Some by Nike. Some by the coaches in Finland, where the Kenyans train. Some by Mukora, who smiled again and said: "I worked for Coca-Cola for 22 years. I sponsored events in many places. I began as a marketing trainee in 1969 and did everything from advertising to marketing before I retired."

In other words, Mukora isn't being taken advantage of. He knows much of what Nike knows about marketing, about expanding to new horizons. But I could look at the faces of angry American and European sportswriters, and tell most of them didn't get it. One after another would come up and ask, "Isn't Nike exploiting you for its own gain?"

Part of the presumption here, arrived at without looking at history, is the notion that Boit and Bitok are some kind of frauds, that the notion Kenyans will someday be world-class skiers is nothing more than a completely preposterous publicity stunt.

It's a notion that ignores the fact that Boit, who arrived in Finland without any winter clothes and without ever having seen snow, first put on a pair of skis Feb. 2, 1996, and in two years accumulated enough points to qualify for the Olympics. It's a notion that ignores the fact that the bodies of Boit and Bitok were so unaccustomed to temperatures below 70 degrees that their fingernails and toenails began to fall off the first few days they spent in sub-zero weather. Is it not a huge accomplishment that a man with no prior experience in a sport can earn a spot in the Olympics within two years?

What's most offensive is that the presumption ignores history. Not long ago, Eastern Europeans dominated long-distance running. The Kenyans, critics said, trained at too high an altitude and would never succeed in races beyond the sprints. At present, the Kenyans own every event from 800 meters to the marathon. And America's primary training facility is now where? Right, Colorado Springs, as high as you can climb in the United States.

Pressed with the question of whether Kenyans skiing is a joke, Mukora, who coached the legendary Olympic gold medalist Kip Keino in the 1960s, said, "I was Kip's coach [in the 1968 Olympics] when we planned how to beat Jim Ryun, my friend."

So go ahead and laugh at the Kenyans if you want. Yes, there have been a lot of gimmicky folks who've come to the Winter Games and simply made clowns of themselves. Yes, people such as British ski jumper Eddie the Eagle. But the Kenyans take their newfound athletic status too seriously to let a corporate sponsor-Nike or anybody else-turn them into a freak show. I'm sticking with the polite, soft-spoken Boit, who said very forcefully in his heavily accented English: "This is a very serious thing for us. It is not something to be taken for fun. We are taking it as being just like our running. The goal now is to improve our times, but we're looking for something bigger in the future . . . maybe in the bracket of a medal." I think Boit could sense the American and European questioners weren't convinced of his credibility and he repeated: "I am so serious. . . . You have to sweat. You have to sweat to achieve your goal."

It's funny how the people who make such a fuss over what they perceive as "exploitation" are the ones who couldn't recognize it when they see it but imagine it everywhere it isn't. How come I never heard anybody screaming "exploitation!" when companies were pouring tens of millions of dollars into the U.S. soccer effort back when American soccer was the pits of the world?

Nike is a big, rich, multinational corporation that exists to make money and stretch its influence. That's no different from any number of news organizations whose representatives here act as if they work for charities. We all know what Nike is. And at a time when shoe sales have slowed, one of the new revenue sources for a company such as Nike is overseas marketing. Whoever hatched the idea ought to be given a huge bonus.

"Without sponsors," Boit said, "we could not do this. It is really impossible without assistance. I can't afford it. No way. I cannot do it."

Let me tell you what would be close to sinister: Nike, or some like company with expansive human and financial resources, not giving Boit and Bitok the chance to do this.

Jussi Lethinen, the skiing coach from Finland who has tutored the Kenyans from Day One, told stories that took us from the Kenyans being scared to ride the ski lift to knowing every name of every competitor here in Japan. "This is my future career sport," Boit said. "I am not turning back."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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