There was only one colourful steeplechase runner - Ezekiel Kemboi

Saturday August 12 2017

Kenya's Ezekiel Kemboi salutes the crowd after the final of the men's 3,000m steeplechase at the 2017 IAAF World Championships at the London Stadium in London on August 8, 2017. PHOTO | ANDREJ ISAKOVIC | AFP

Kenya's Ezekiel Kemboi salutes the crowd after the final of the men's 3,000m steeplechase at the 2017 IAAF World Championships at the London Stadium in London on August 8, 2017. PHOTO | ANDREJ ISAKOVIC | AFP  

By ROY GACHUHI
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Sometime in 1978, when I was learning the ropes of my trade, I discovered to my pleasant surprise that my boss was a retired centre forward of the Uganda Cranes.

His name was Archelius Oundo. He was General Manager of the Stellascope Group whose weekly broadsheet, The Nairobi Times, I was writing for.

I had been hired by his brother, the legendary editor, Hilary Ng’weno.

Oundo was a good man. He seemed fascinated by this smooth chinned lad barely out of his teens who was mad about sports. He took me under his wing and my days were good.

One day, he was on one of his regular stopovers by my desk to chat me up. I remember our conversation with near perfect precision. (Somebody tell me: why is it easy to remember with minute details about what happened decades ago and hard to recall last month’s events?)

I asked Oundo: “Explain to me how a sportsman gets old. What were you feeling when you decided to retire from football.”

It must have been yet another of those questions that made him like me. He clearly enjoyed the innocence it bespoke and he relished his role as mentor. He smiled and thought. Then he said: “It’s your body. It tells you when it has had enough.”

“How does it do that?”

“In many small ways,” he said. “Like making a pass. What you used to do so easily now becomes difficult and it doesn’t matter how hard you try. In fact, the harder you try the clearer it becomes that you can’t make it. You also get tired quickly and yet in your younger days you felt you could go on forever.”

I remember finding that difficult to understand. I was sure that with more application, it should be possible to push back the years – and stay at the top of your game. That is why I probed him earnestly:

“And you can’t do anything about it?”

“No,” said. “You just accept. When it is time, it is time.”

I don’t know why I thought that disturbing. So I asked Oundo whether he woke up one day and found that he couldn’t be able to do what he could the previous day.

“Is it gradual or sudden?” I asked.

“Both – or somewhere in between,” he told me and by the look on his face, he seemed to be travelling back in time, to his playing days. Then he added, before he rose to go: “Think of it like the movement of a clock. Do you see the hour hand of a clock moving? Of course, you don’t. But it is moving. And depending on what you are doing or want to do, it could be moving very fast.”

In years to come, when it would be my own turn to mentor younger people, I added the movement of the sun to Oundo’s analogy. Do you see the sun moving?

Of course, you don’t. But depending on what you are doing or want to do, a day can be extremely short because the sun is travelling at a great speed. (Needless to say, it is the earth that is moving, not the sun, but this is not a geography lesson).

THE GREATEST

My conversation with Oundo lodged itself on my mind this week after watching the greatest steeplechaser of all time, Ezekiel Kemboi, finish 11th in the final of this race at the World Athletics Championships.

This is the event that he has dominated for the last 16 years. It stayed there as I read reports from our people in London about how he had called time on his steeplechase career and turned to my favourite race – the marathon.

How fortunate of us not to be seeing the last of this character – for a character Ezekiel Kemboi is. His broad smile incessantly reminds us that a day spent without a good laugh is a day lost. His happiness is infectious. Bathed in a deluge of sweat, he breaks into a jig and drags you into it. Joining Kemboi in victory is to lose yourself helplessly in unalloyed happiness.

The two-time Olympic champion wraps the national flag around himself as if it were a Masai shuka he bought on the roadside in Kajiado and it seems so authentically his own. And yet you still find yourself asking about this lean-as-leather distance running machine: how can so much strength be packed in so small a body?

In the faces of many athletes is the image you are never allowed to forget: the strain of the business. It is hard work, like Atlas carrying the world. But Kemboi makes it look fun.

Ezekiel Kemboi fields questions in his final steeplechase post race interview on August 8, 2017 at the London Stadium. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Ezekiel Kemboi fields questions in his final steeplechase post race interview on August 8, 2017 at the London Stadium. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

He splashes the arena with that horizon-to-horizon smile and you forget that we are talking about three kilometres of the most punishing obstacle course. And Kemboi has covered it in 7min 55.76 seconds on his way to being the only runner to mount the winners’ podium in four consecutive world championships in the same event. It is an amazing feat by an amazing champion.

I have sometimes felt the urge to call and ask him: “So Kemboi, tell me, why do they allow you, a policeman, to sport such a funny hairstyle?”

I don’t know what the answer would be but I guess they, too, are also madly in love with this hero, despite his excesses.

And he does have excesses. There was a time he riveted the country’s attention with a courtroom drama that threatened to tarnish his name and earn him a ban from his beloved career.

In testimony describing his advances which she turned down on grounds that she was a married woman, his accuser quoted him beseeching her to take pity on him: “Sasa Wambui unaniachaje?” (“Now Wambui, why are you leaving me like this?) It was late in the night and Kemboi and the woman had had drinks.

Kemboi settled that one out of court.

All our eyes will now be on April next year when he says he will run his first marathon. The steeplechase was always going to have its way against his 35 year-old legs. That time has come and there is nothing he can do about it.

He can feel it. He has been feeling it for a while now. Like when he made an uncharacteristic lane infringement in Rio last year and it cost him a bronze medal.

This is the way a sportsman ages. What was easy yesterday is hard today. But for Kenya, there will be a change only in the name on the vest.

The steeplechase is our race and it doesn’t matter who is lining up for us. Even as Kemboi embarks on his onerous hunt for marathon gold, Conseslus Kipruto is already entrenched in what was his place. The tradition that was started by Amos Biwott in the 1968 Mexico Olympics continues.

Kenya's Conseslus Kipruto (centre) celebrates winning the final of the men's 3,000m steeplechase at the 2017 IAAF World Championships at the London Stadium in London on August 8, 2017. PHOTO | GLYN KIRK | AFP

Kenya's Conseslus Kipruto (centre) celebrates winning the final of the men's 3,000m steeplechase at the 2017 IAAF World Championships at the London Stadium in London on August 8, 2017. PHOTO | GLYN KIRK | AFP

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The Kenyan Premier League, whose Round of 20 matches were re-scheduled because of the General Election, does not hold elections for its office-bearers.

Its constitution states that its chairman will be the chairman of the reigning KPL champions. Its vice-chairman is the chairman of the runners-up club.

The KPL has a competitively appointed CEO as head of its secretariat.

I once asked Bob Munro, the brains behind the league, why they settled on this format.

He told me: “When we as clubs got fed up with the perennial wrangles in the Kenya Football Federation that were all about how to optimise our exploitation, one of the first agreements we had was that we should not have elections. They drain all the energy, leaving little for anything else. It is permanent political activity as players suffer.”

If I was working in another country on Tuesday this week and I was writing this piece and I suffered the regular writer’s block, I would have simply walked around the building, marked my ballot using a pencil and walked away without fearing that somebody would play nefarious games with my choice.

I would have left the room without the demeaning exercise of having to be inked on suspicion that I might come to vote again. And then I would resume writing with a clear head.

But this is my birthplace Kenya and we are different. Since the vote, my country has come to a virtual standstill, especially after the tallying went the way it did.

Even if widespread violence does not occur (some people have already been shot), the social and economic damage has been done. I have no idea when normal life will resume.

Kenyans like rushing to court over the flimsiest of reasons. Isn’t it about time that somebody went there and sought orders that elections are too hot to handle for the people of Kenya

He would need a 40-foot container to accommodate all his documented evidence. KPL formula, anyone?