NAIROBI, Kenya, February 29- When his 6 foot, 2 inches frame with well trimmed grey hair eases to the seat for an interview, it only takes a few seconds to establish this is no ordinary man, the span of time it took him to ascend to prominence.
The aura of greatness around Carl Lewis, the signature act in track and field through the 80s and 90s hangs on his sharp suit like expensive cologne and once he starts speaking, any lingering doubt about his giant stature is quickly dispelled.
“I’m very vain, I’m very expensive and I realise I have to keep myself in shape and work. The bottom line is one of the keys of keeping my business going is to walk into a room and be recognised.
“That is part of it, understanding my body is part of my business. I got great work ethic from sports and I don’t mind working, going places and travelling. I’m afraid of being broke! I am! I don’t know what is like, the last time I was broke was in high school!”
It is such kind of statements that made Lewis the legend he turned out to be although many have found his self-congratulatory conduct difficult to stomach.
His imposing character, self belief, industry and will to succeed is a template that Kenyan athletes who possess talent but fail to live up to their full potential on and off competition need a healthy dose of.
When Capital Sport was offered the rare opportunity by organisers of the 2014 IBM Business Connect convention to sit with him in Nairobi, the nine-time Olympics champion came across as the guy-next-door, eager to articulate his views without the airs of ‘I’ve been there, done that’ most stars carry themselves.
The biggest lesson Kenyan athletes can learn from the man who scaled the heights of his sport and continues to command interest globally two decades later is running is big time enterprise, not a get-rich-quick gig that ends in sorry retirement.
“I don’t mind working hard. I was a little kid in tenth grade and no one who knew I was in South Jersey and by 12th grade; I was fifth in the world and by freshman in college, I was in the Olympics team.
“The only time I did not work for myself was the two months I worked at McDonalds when I was 16. All what I did was to run fast and run my mouth. I’m the luckiest man in the world,” the eight-time World champion told of his humble beginnings before exploding to the scene in 1981.
His modest beginnings to commanding global fame is a tale replicated here where talented athletes rise from tiny hamlets to greatness with the difference being most Kenyan runners never realise what they’ve got, a far cry from Lewis.
“It’s not what you are called but what you do. What matters is how you respond. Nowadays I see amateur athletes in professional sport, I don’t see athletes acting as professionals, creating their own business, negotiating with partners and working with them.
“We should be going to promoters telling them I can make you X amount of dollars so that I can get X amount of dollars. Nowadays, there is no partnership because athletes are not thinking their career as a business. They think they have arrived and if you do that in a business, rest on your laurels, it’s all over.”
His declaration rings true on upcoming Kenyan runners who operate under the whims of foreign managers, many being forced to the roads early using training programmes not suitable for individual needs.
This has led to the early burn out of hot prospects for example the 2011 World Youth record holder, Leonard Konchesha, reported to have been dumped by his manager injured in his home village last year.
“The biggest problem is that athletes don’t look themselves as a business. My coach told me if you focus on the money you will not make it, focus on the competition. I became the CEO of my business at 18.
“I joined the Santa Monica Track Club and I recruited the best sprinters possible so that by 1988, we were the best club in history. I had one major, I trained in one place and at the end of the day, I ran the show, I took control,” the icon who admits his mission in life was to become ‘a millionaire, I don’t want a real job’ when he joined University of Houston, narrated.
“I was the business, I ran the show, my career was the vision that I saw. Athletes now don’t want to do that, they want to sit back and say they have a manager who tells them what to do,” Lewis added, capturing the mentality of most of Kenya’s budding athletes who have placed undying faith in foreign agents.
The track and field legend urged athletes to establish foundations to keep them going bust after retirement, a recurrent scenario in this part of world with a huge number of formers runners taking to the drink or scrambling for menial officiating jobs at Athletics Kenya meets after hanging their running shoes.
“One of the things to be successful is to pick the brains of many people who have succeeded. When I went to the Grammies, I would pick the brains Michael Jackson or Prince and other people in education.
“I went to school to get an education to build it it, I worked at a radio and TV station not for the money so that I could learn how to bring information and answer the questions. A lot of people get the spotlight and think they have made it but to build my business through preparation,” the sprint and Long jumper explained.
After his history equalling 1984 Olympics when he won four golds to match the achievement of compatriot Jesse Owen, Lewis realised he had reached his zenith and worked on how he would motivate himself for further success.
As he travels around the world as a United Nations ambassador and motivational speaker paid well to present his views, his Kenyan contemporaries, Mike Boit (now a professor at Kenyatta University in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science) and Henry Rono (a high school athletics coach in Albuquerque, New Mexico,) enjoyed contrasting fortunes when their glittering careers ended.
Business Connect brought together over 350 influencers from the Kenyan technology industry and the public sector to discuss the latest trends in field with an emphasis on could computing, analytics, social business and mobility.
Lewis gave an inspirational talk to the group relating his wide experience in athletes to the rapidly shifting changes in the technology space and it was a pity no Kenyan athlete was present.
Despite a career dogged by controversy Lewis retired a nine-time Olympics and eight-time world champion between 1983 and 1996, the epitome of greatness in track and field.