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Commonwealth allowances: It’s an old tale of officials shortchanging athletes

Friday July 25 2014

Kenya's flagbearer Mercy Obiero leads the

Kenya's flagbearer Mercy Obiero leads the delegation during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014. AFP PHOTO/ ANDREJ ISACOVIC 

ROY GACHUHI
By ROY GACHUHI
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The past week has been awash with stories of how Kenya’s athletes to the 20th Commonwealth Games in Glasgow are haggling with officials for their allowances.

They have had to make do with a plethora of excuses of why they cannot be given what is theirs. Dark tales have been told of how Team Kenya’s money was channeled into the personal account of a senior officer, “in good faith” believe it or not, so that the official could withdraw the money and distribute it to its rightful owners.

I read these stories with a sense of déjà vu. I was the Daily Nation reporter to the 1982 Commonwealth Games and one of my earliest dispatches from Brisbane, Australia – which the Editor headlined “Kenya hit by Games shambles” – was a lengthy lament from athletics head coach Kipchoge Keino after Kenya threw away the 10,000 metres race. The great Henry Rono had withdrawn from the Games citing injury although there was more to that story than met the eye.

Still, Kenya had strength in-depth, as usual in distance races. One Peter Koech was the natural fill in and was expected to take the gold, given the times he had been clocking. But the US-based Koech was for a long time holed up in Honolulu, unable to get a visa to Australia. When he finally did, he jumped into the plane and arrived in Brisbane all of four hours before the starter’s gun.

The result was a catastrophe. Tanzania’s Gidemus Shahanga took gold and to put the icing on the cake, his compatriot, Zacharia Barie, collected the silver. This is what I told Daily Nation readers: “Kenya paid the price of gambling with exhausted athletes when Peter Koech, who took the field a mere four hours after landing in Brisbane from Honolulu, was unceremoniously lapped by the Tanzanians as they took off for the final leg.

“The Tanzanian pair had done the same thing three laps earlier to another Kenyan, Erastus Kemei, from whom so much had been expected, after plans for this race went to pieces yesterday. Koech proved that a human being needs to rest after a long flight when he finished the race together with Shahanga who was completing his lap of honour.”

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Koech finished 14th and Kemei, 15th. Kipchoge Keino, normally a temperate man, was livid. In the stands of the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, he waved his arms in the air and uncharacteristically raised his voice as he railed at the disorder in Athletics Kenya’s predecessor, the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association.

He told me: “If we do badly, so much will be said about the coaches. I blame the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association entirely. Our job is to be given athletes to coach. We have nothing to do with this poor organisation. Visa problems should have been sorted out long ago.” And so should money problems 32 years later. The question we must ask is why our sportsmen and women, those that do well, always do so despite and not because of the people who manage their affairs. It is also important to inquire whether disorganisation is a genetic trait among us.

WALLOWED IN NOSTALGIA

Since the 1950s Kenya has been competing in Commonwealth and Olympic Games which always come in four-year cycles, meaning there is no surprise in their arrival. Yet when it is time to board the plane, officials are up to their necks with allowance and kit issues and whatnot. You will be lucky to get a phone call answered because people are extremely busy, usually in meetings and more meetings.

But to what end? Motion is not the same thing as movement. A car stuck in mud can finish a tank of fuel and wear its tyres while rooted in the same spot. It can even slide backwards. Many of our officials are like it; extremely busy but making no progress at all.

The issues faced by Naftali Temu and Charles Asati in the 1960s are still rearing their ugly head today. Maybe it is even worse today because of money. It is a lot more today and the greed levels are stupendous.

Worryingly, shame, a very important trait in the character of a civilized person, is wholly lacking; the same problem occurs again and again but still an official will look at you straight in the eye and betray not an iota of regret. It’s simply the way things are done.

So Team Kenya’s officials have been having an extremely hectic time roaming the streets of Nairobi trying to get allowances for their athletes? It seems they never knew that Commonwealth Games were going to take place this year. So great is the emergency that desperate measures such as wiring the team’s money into an official’s personal account “for ease of payment” becomes necessary.

Let’s think about the personal cost of all this disorganisation – deliberate as it surely must be – on some of our compatriots. The athletes are in all probability the sole breadwinners for their families. Before leaving for Glasgow, they needed the money so that they can leave it with their families so that those loved ones can do what families do with money.

But in come heartless officials and their excuses. Families just cannot buy food with officials’ excuses! The athletes, meanwhile, must divide their attention between training for a high performance competition and agitating for their allowances. And if they perform poorly, they are not expected to explain that their concentration was impaired by some enforced trade union work.

Kenya badly needs a national dialogue on the future of its sports programme. A “structured dialogue”, to use familiar Kenyanese, must seek to find out why a nation so blessed of talent and with world conquering potential in so many sports disciplines is forever hostage to rent seeking officials.

Why must this be the story every four years? Is the country so helpless against just a few people? Or is this exactly how we would behave if given a chance to occupy those positions? Is corruption intrinsic to us?

Good luck to Team Kenya. Get us bagful of medals because the very last thing some of us want to hear after the closing ceremonies is that well worn official statement that we are expected swallow without question: “It’s back to the drawing board.”

*********

I wallowed in nostalgia at the remembrance of 1982. I seemed to personally know every notable sportsman or woman in Kenya then. Those were the reporting days, obviously the most exciting in my career. And now, I stopped to think: where did they all go?

My mind took me to the Hit Squad. When we went to the Brisbane Games, they were the reigning Commonwealth, All Africa and East and Central Africa champions. I knew each one of those boxers. Their captain, a lanky south paw Kenya Prisons officer named Kamau Wanyoike had made the uncanny prediction that Kenya would retain the Commonwealth title by putting five boxers in the final with at least four of them winning gold.

It transpired that the country fielded four finalists and three of them won gold medals – which was enough to retain the crown. The gold medalists were light flyweight Ibrahim “Surf” Bilali, flyweight Michael “Spinks” Mutua and lightweight Hussein “Juba” Kalili.

The fourth finalist and silver medalist was light welterweight Charles Owiso, who braved a cut over his right eye to just drop a points decision against his Nigerian opponent. I remember that night very well. The venue was an arena called Festival Hall in downtown Brisbane but it might as well have been Nairobi City Hall on the starry night of October 8, 1982. It was Kenya’s night. England had a seemingly insurmountable advantage of seven finalists.

They looked a certainty as new champions. But in the end, they could only manage two gold medals.

This week, as I was researching this column, I kept wondering what happened to all those brilliant fighters who reigned across the amateur world.

Names such as Stephen Muchoki, Isaiah Ikhoni, Kamau Wanyoike and Robert Wangila later on, like Philip Waruinge before them, were household names across the boxing universe. That is when the Hit Squad was the Hit Squad. I have been in touch with some of them but unfortunately, most of the stories coming from them are stories of doom and gloom. When their days of glory and globetrotting were finally over, the clock seemed to have stopped in their lives.

Most had secured their jobs not on the basis of their academic qualifications but because of their skills in the ring. The armed forces, the prisons department, parastatal bodies and corporates like Kenya Breweries, just snapped them up. But it was a ticking clock to disaster. Lack of academic papers meant that they could hardly make any upward career moves. They first stagnated, and then they were let go.

And so it all ended up badly. Some have died in dire circumstances and many are just getting by through hard times. They have organised themselves in an organisation called the Kenya Welfare Boxing Association whose key officers, chairman David Makumba, secretary Ikhoni, treasurer Duncan Kuria and members such as David Wanjau and Billy Kiremi exhibit admirable energy in addressing the plight of their fellow retirees.

Kuria in particular, probably the only university graduate among them, is passionate about the value of education for any youngster who takes up boxing. Sugar Ray, as he is still called since his fighting days, was the captain of the Hit Squad during the Olympic Games of Sydney in 2000. He is a physical planner with the Ministry of Lands.

“What is most needed for any person,” he tells me, “is self-sufficiency. And there is no route more certain to give you this than education. Competitive sport is done by the youth and as we all know, this lasts but for a very short time. And what do you do next? Only education can save you. That is what we are preaching to our youngsters without tiring.”

This is the message that should have been preached in 1963 at the dawn of our independence. But quite clearly, those whose responsibility it was to preach had other things on their mind. The first item on their agenda was to skim off money meant for the people they were supposed to be taking care off. What a pity that these are the stories that we are still writing 50 years later.

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