Just a week to Mashujaa Day, three great Kenyan athletes hit the road and lit the globe with daring feet. From Vienna, Austria, to Chicago, USA, marathoners Eliud Kipchoge, Brigid Kosgei and Lawrence Cherono wowed the world with their blockbuster victories in the 42km races.
It was the kind of feat that could as well have been powered by the poem “Ode to Sports” by Olympic Games founder Pierre de Coubertin. One of its stanzas goes:
O Sport, you are Daring! The whole meaning of muscular effort lies in one word — to dare. What good are muscles, what good is it to feel nimble and strong and to train one's nimbleness and strength if not to dare? But the daring you inspire is far from the rashness which impels the gambler to stake his all on a throw. It is a prudent and considered daring.
First, Kipchoge hit the road on October 12 in Vienna in a solo race against time. He was competing with himself, aided by 41 pacesetters, in the much-publicised INEOS 1:59 Challenge.
By the cross of the finish line, the digital clock beamed 1.59.40. The Greatest of All Time had run the race, kept his faith and sealed his feat in the Guinness World Records as the first human to run the marathon in under two hours.
Barely 24 hours later and as celebrations of Kipchoge’s victory in the East continued, Cherono grabbed the second victory in a blistering breeze through the line in the men’s Chicago Marathon. His was a knife-edge triumph at the tape, just past two Ethiopian runners.
Moments later, Kosgei brought home a thunderous record smasher in Chicago, winning the women’s marathon decisively by breaking a 16-year record by over one minute and beating her closest challenger by more than six minutes.
The three victories, coming soon after the IAAF Diamond League exploit by other Kenyan athletes in Doha, Qatar, stamped Kenya’s authority in the middle and long-distance races. Their strengths, steps and styles in the sports are stuff that can inspire legends and epic stories.
Suffice it to say that sports and literary stories lie side by side just like Kameno and Makuyu, the two villages in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel The River Between.
Literature relies heavily on sports and sports personalities for inspiration. Sporting events provide the motifs and metaphors for the stories while the sports personalities are the material of choice for heroes.
For instance, in Ngugi’s A Grain of Wheat, Gikonyo and Karanja take part in a village sports event. But as they compete in the race, amid cheers from the crowd, a different race runs in their minds too — the race for Mumbi’s heart.
In the run-up to the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil, Literary Hub sampled the views of 20 writers from around the world on the Olympics.
Each was asked about the event they would be watching closely, the most interesting literary transition in their home country and which of their country’s athletes would make the most compelling hero of a novel or subject of a biography.
The writers also spoke of the sports they were likely to use as metaphor in their writings. Three writers said they would choose marathon as metaphor.
One novelist said he would choose marathon because it takes long, is extremely lonely, “and you feel like you’re going to die when you get to the finish line.”
Osama Almora, a Syrian author based in Chicago, said there is something primeval about the joy of watching individuals overcome the laws of nature through strength, speed or lightness — or all three.
Acknowledging the link between art and sports, the International Olympic Committee introduced the art competitions awards at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. This was a category meant to honour various works of art inspired by sports. The categories included architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture.
Pierre de Coubertin’s poem “Ode to Sport”, entered under pseudonyms, won the literary award. The category was, however, abolished in 1954.
Kipchoge’s rendition of the INEOS 1:59 gave viewers with a literary taste more than just a road race and a finish line. It was like reading a masterpiece. His measured pace, poise and proportion blended gracefully with the synchronised steps and style of the seven pacesetters at a time. The transition from one set of pacesetters to another was as flawless as was artistic.
It is through such beauty that he carried along the millions of people watching into the delightful finish. An enthusiastic wag in our neighbourhood quipped that Kipchoge didn’t run much.
The wag claimed that Kipchoge could have finished the race in less than one hour had the pacesetters not slowed him down! Well, in blissful moments, such as elicited by Kipchoge’s #NoHumanIsLimited mantra, hyperbole flows aplenty and no human imagination is limited. “Ode to Sports” begins with the profound line:
“O Sport, delight of the Gods, distillation of lift!..
O Sport, you are Beauty! … you fill movement with rhythm, you make strength gracious, and you lend power to supple things.”
Thus, our athletics can offer unlimited ground for literature to flourish.
Mr Kibet is an editor in Nairobi; [email protected]