When Kenya first went to the Olympic Games in 1956, we were still a British colony. That means that for Africans, there were places in your own country that you could not live in, schools you could not take your children to and clubs that you could not patronise on account of your skin colour.
The Daily Nation, your preferred source of sports news, was four years away from its birth and the media of the day, predominantly colonial mouth pieces, routinely ran banner headlines proclaiming that Kenya was not yet ready to be free.
Freedom did come in 1963. The irony of freedom is that the national teams that we have produced over the decades don’t look like the rainbow face that Kenya is and which the pioneer teams represented. Our Olympic journey was started by heroes such as Nyandika Maiyoro, Seraphino Antao, Avtar Singh, Wilson Kipkurgut Chuma, Roy Congreve and others. Unfortunately, by the last Olympics in London, a non-black Kenyan carrying the national flag raised hackles amongst a dispiritingly large number of Kenyans.
Kenya’s Olympic journey is primarily the story of its great athletes. Thereafter, it becomes the story of its boxers and finally that of everybody else. It is a story of great achievement and missed chances. And it is also an invitation to ask searching questions, like if, with a more imaginative management, we could not have won medals in some sports that Africans have a traditional affinity for like walking, archery, wrestling, swimming and canoeing.
Kenya is a very reluctant country when it comes to investment in sports infrastructure. If you travel around this beautiful country, and if you belong to a certain age group, there’s one thing that won’t escape your attention: many of its stadiums, like its police stations and prisons, were built during the colonial era – and their decay emphasise the fact.
Visit Nairobi City Stadium, Afraha Stadium in Nakuru, Ruring’u Stadium in Nyeri, Kinoru Stadium in Meru or the Mombasa Municipal Stadium and you will have an excellent ride down memory lane to the 1950s and 60s.
In almost 60 years, only Nyayo National Stadium and the Safaricom Kasarani have been added to the nation’s venue asset category. And yet, the seized loot of just one big time crook could make a huge difference in the fortunes of our youth.
With elections a short one year away, we can, of course, expect a cascade of promises. Wake me up when it’s all over.
Across 60 years from Melbourne (1956), Rome (1960), Tokyo (1964), Mexico City (1968), Munich (1972), Montreal (1976), Moscow (1980), Los Angeles (1984), Seoul (1988), Barcelona (1992), Atlanta (1996), Sydney (2000), Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012), we have joined others in celebrating the finest of what Olympism calls the youth of the world. We have also been left numb with shock sometimes as when terrorists killed innocent sportsmen in Munich in 1972. Now Rio de Janeiro (2016) beckons.
Beginning in May and every two weeks until the opening of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad on August 5, this column will be bringing you stories of Kenya’s Olympic journey. Join me in remembering the good and bad times of a road long travelled. Your own personal recollections of what made the most memorable impressions on you are also welcome and I will do my best to share them with other readers.
As a preview, here is a sweeping glance of this journey:
1956. Under the British flag, Kenya Colony participates in the Olympic Games held in Melbourne, Australia, for the first time. A future national hero, Nyandika Maiyoro, is the star of the team, posting a seventh place finish in the 3-mile race, today the 5,000 metres. The 1956 Games are the first to be held in the Southern Hemisphere and the first under American International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Avery Brundage, an Olympism zealot and fanatic of amateurism who would famously declare that “the Games must go on” even after 11 Israeli athletes were massacred by Palestinian terrorists 16 years later in the Games of Munich.
1960. The Games in Rome launch the career of Avtar Singh, the longest serving Olympic sportsman in Kenya’s history. In future Games – 1964, 1968 and 1972 – and in the 1971 World Cup, he is the national captain and in the Games of 1984 he is the coach. Today, 78 year-old Avtar still coaches hockey at Friends School, Kamusinga. In Rome, Muhammad Ali bursts loudly into the international stage with a gold medal in boxing’s heavyweight category.
1964. A 26 year-old soldier, Wilson Kipkurgut Chuma, becomes the first Kenyan to make an Olympic Games podium finish with a bronze medal in the 800 metres. By this time, Kenya is independent but not yet a republic. Japan uses the Tokyo Olympics to showcase its new technological wonder, the Shinkansen, also called the bullet train, which has a top speed of 320 kph.
1968. In Mexico City, Kenya announces to the world its emergence as an athletics super power. Naftali Temu becomes the nation’s first Olympic gold medallist after winning the 10,000 metres. And the legend of Kipchoge Keino grows, with gold in the 1,500 metres and silver in the 5,000. Philip Waruinge is voted Outstanding Boxer of the Games and wins the Val Baker Trophy, after controversially losing his semi-final bout. Amos Biwott starts the Kenyan dynasty in the 3,000 metres steeplechase which lives on to this day. Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise black power salutes during the medal ceremony in one of the most enduring images of political expression in Olympic history.
1972. Munich, (West) Germany. The most exciting short distance race in Kenya’s Olympic history is the one run by the gold medal winning 4x400 metre relay quartet of Charles Asati, Hezekiah Nyamau, Robert Ouko and Julius Sang. Watch the videos of that race and you will agree. But the Games are ruined by the spectre of terror with 11 Israeli athletes being massacred in their living quarters by guerillas of the Palestinian Black September terrorist organisation.
1976. The start of the 12-year boycott period. Almost all independent African countries, Kenya included, boycott the Games of Montreal when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refuses to support their demand that all countries with sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa be excluded from the Games. African countries are joined by a few other sympathetic Third World countries. The Olympic careers of our great Henry Rono (athletics) and Stephen Muchoki (boxing) and a host of so many other promising sportsmen and women go up in smoke.
1980. The former Soviet Union invades Afghanistan and its Cold War rival, the United States, launches a campaign for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics. The pieces fall exactly as expected; countries aligned to the capitalist West, Kenya included, heed the boycott call while those allied to the Socialist bloc, decline. Altogether, 65 countries stay away. But some Western and Western-leaning nations find a middle way by competing under the Olympic flag.
1984. As it were, the Los Angeles Games, which had been awarded to the city before the politics of 1980 enveloped the Games, give the Soviet Union a splendid chance to get back at its rival, the United States. Now the shoe is in the other foot; all Eastern and Eastern-leaning countries boycott the Games while all Western and Western leaning countries travel to America for the first privately funded Games in Olympic history. Peter Ueberroth, organiser of the Games, becomes a global entrepreneur icon.
1988. With nine medals, Kenya equals its haul of the 1968 and 1972 tally. But with five golds, the Seoul Olympics are its most successful to date and rank today as the second best ever after the 2008 Beijing collection of six. Starehe Boys Centre alumni Paul Ereng blazes the trail with a memorable 800 metre run that will not be seen again until the era of David Rudisha and an almost disbelieving Daily Nation screams in a banner headline: “Yes! It’s a gold!” But we also remember 1988 as the first and only time Africa won an Olympic Games boxing gold medal through our tragic hero, Robert Wangila.
Like Japan in 1964, South Korea uses the Games to showcase its spectacular economic development and the distance it has travelled to pull away from Third World countries like Kenya which only a few decades past it was compared with.
1992. Only William Tanui (800 metres) and Mathew Birir (steeplechase, as usual) make a gold medal podium finish for Kenya. The Games of Barcelona are also remembered for politics, this time for the right reasons. South Africa, which was banished from Olympic competition in 1960, is allowed to compete after abandoning its apartheid policy, unbanning the African National Congress and freeing Nelson Mandela (1990). A re-unified Germany competes as one nation once again since 1964. On the other hand, a disintegrated Soviet Union has former union nations Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania competing against Russia.
1996. We need Joseph Keter in the steeplechase to ensure we don’t return home without gold. The total haul of eight medals – four silver and three bronze – don’t satisfy Kenyans, now used to success. There are calls for Athletics Kenya heads to roll. But Atlanta 1996 is also etched in our minds because of opening and closing ceremonies that remind us of how intensely sweet American cultural imperialism sometimes sounds to our ears. Do you remember Gladys Knight singing “Georgia on My Mind” and Celine Dion belting out David Foster’s “The Power of the Dream?” But also, there is a poignancy that shatters the heart and, like President Bill Clinton, you involuntarily shed tears as you watch Muhammad Ali, his hands shaking uncontrollably as a result of his Parkinson’s condition, lighting the Olympic torch and mercifully succeeding in the effort.
2000. Kenya collects a total of seven medals in Sydney, Australia, including two gold. Sydney is the last Games under IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain and the antithesis of Avery Brundage. Under Samaranch, amateurism goes and in comes professionalism. The Games of Sydney are widely lauded as the best organised of any era and some commentators express doubts that they can be matched or exceeded. Even Sebastian Coe, chairman of the succeeding Olympics in London and now IAAF president, says London would try to emulate Sydney “in some ways”.
2004. Finally, the world gets a chance to pay homage to Greece, birthplace of the Olympic Games. Athens had bid for the 1996 Games to coincide with the centennial of the Olympics but lost to Atlanta. Now the world comes to Greece for the Games themed as “Welcome Home”. Greece puts on a spectacular show with opening ceremonies hacking back to ancient times. President Jacques Rogge describes Athens 2004 as the “unforgettable dream Games.” As for Kenya, boxer David Munyasia is sent home in disgrace for testing positive for cathine, a prohibited stimulant. Munyasia says he just chewed miraa, which was last week declared by President Uhuru Kenyatta a cash crop, and not a drug.
2008. The Beijing Games rank as Kenya’s best Olympic outing. The country wins its highest collection of gold medals, six, through Wilfred Bungei (800 metres), Asbel Kiprop (1,500 metres), Kiprop Kipruto (3,000 metres steeplechase), Samuel Wanjiru (marathon), Pamela Jelimo (800 metres) and Nancy Jebet (1,500 metres). Wanjiru wins the marathon, the pre-eminent Olympic race, in spectacular fashion and becomes one of the hottest names in world athletics. He is tragically unable to deal with his superstar status and takes refuge in alcohol and truant behaviour, and dies on May 5, 2011. The cause of that death is still under investigation.
2012. Ezekiel Kemboi, who could take up a job with the Churchill’s Laugh Industry as a comedian when he finally hangs up his spikes, continues Kenya’s steeplechase gold tradition as David Rudisha turns on a great performance to win the men’s 800 metres.
For me, London 2012 is an eye opener not so much on the track but one the screen. Kenyans marvel at the millions of shillings won by athletes. Every last penny of that money is earned, I can assure you. If you doubt me, please watch Jackie Lebo’s Gun to Tape documentary in which she followed Rudisha and Edna Kiplagat on the road to London.
You’ll think again.
2016. Rio de Janeiro, here we come.