By now you have read the story of Hyvon Ngetich. She is the marathon runner with a superhuman will.
She crawled the last 50 metres of the Austin Marathon after her body gave in and finished third in 3:04.02, just three seconds behind the second place finisher.
She had been leading the race before the collapse of her body, leaving the spirit to finish the job. Somebody came to her with a wheelchair but she refused to get on it.
The narratives of her epic endurance, of steadily gazing at the finish line while scrambling forward on all fours, her broken body wracked with pain and saliva drooling freely, brought tears to many eyes.
Every abstract school notice board mission-and-vision statement in Kenya extolling the virtues of hard work and nobility of endeavour found practical expression in that unforgettable Austin Marathon ending.
The tribute offered her by race director John Conley – “you ran the bravest race and crawled the bravest crawl I have ever seen in my life” – inspired my memory to two stupendous Olympic efforts to which Hyvon Ngetich’s act of history belongs.
One was from a Japanese gymnast and the other a Tanzanian marathon runner. Let us recall them before returning to Ngetich.
During the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, Japan’s Shun Fujimoto broke his knee during the floor exercise routine. Despite the excruciating pain, Fujimoto didn’t flinch. He endured the pain, afraid that news of what had just happened would demoralize his colleagues. He was not thinking about himself; he was thinking about them.
The badly injured gymnast continued to the pommel horse routine, miraculously scoring a staggering 9.5 out of 10. Next Fujimoto faced the rings, which would be his final event of the day.
He was going to dismount from these rings from a height of eight feet above the ground upon completion of this routine at great speed and force but he didn’t waver.
Fujimoto performed extraordinarily and upon completion of his routine, he hurled himself into a beautifully executed, triple-somersault dismount.
When his feet hit the floor, the pain from his shattered knee sliced through him like a knife. But, astonishingly, Fujimoto kept his balance. And then, gritting his teeth through the searing pain, he raised his arms in a perfect finish before collapsing in agony. He was awarded a 9.7, the highest score he had ever recorded on the rings.
Fujimoto had helped his team to win the closest gymnastics team competition in Olympic history and now it was time to receive the gold medal.
By now it was clear to everybody what had happened and assistance was offered to help him to the podium. He turned it down. He insisted on soldiering on to up there on his own.
That is the story of Shun Fujimoto. Now we remember John Stephen Akhwari of Tanzania, like our Hyvon Ngetich, a marathon runner. The year was 1968 and the occasion was the Games of Mexico City.
In the cold darkness of the night, Akhwari entered the stadium with a bloodied and heavily bandaged knee and shin. He wasn’t running; he was hobbling. The winner of this race had been declared over an hour earlier and only a small crowd remained in the stadium. All alone, Akhwari hobbled on.
As he crossed the finish line, the crowd rose on its feet and roared out its appreciation. Later, a reporter asked the runner why he had not retired from the race, since he had no chance of winning. He seemed confused by the question. Finally, he answered:
“My country did not send me to Mexico City to start the race. They sent me to finish.”
No athlete before him had given a better expression to the words of Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, that it is not the winning that matters, but the brave endeavour.
Back to Hyvon Ngetich. Her Olympian performance comes at a time when Kenya sport is at its lowest ebb. This is the country that was once ranked fourth in the world in field hockey, whose cricket team once beat the West Indies in a World Cup match and whose athletes practically copyrighted the 3000 metres steeplechase race.
This is the country whose football club twice featured in a CAF tournament final, and won it once.
As her epic run gradually fades away from our sports pages, we know that her example did not register anywhere in official Kenya, not even in the Ministry of Sports, and that it will pass as if nothing happened.
School children will continue to cram and mouth platitudes about excellence and endeavour and not connect them to the blood and bones figure of the great athlete.
Meanwhile, Members of Parliament are busy debating about stripping Governors and MCAs the titles of “Excellency” and “Honourable”.
That is what is urgent and important to them. While they are at it, the Sports Minister, Dr Wario, an indefatigable author of ultimatums that only elicit derisive laughter from their targets, thinks those are the best way to solve the wrangles bedeviling the nation’s two most popular sports.
Where and when in Kenya do we debate such fine things as the value of a good example? And how can we quantify such absolute human necessities as inspiration? How can we appreciate a person who shows us by practical example that it is not over until it is over?
ACCOMPLISHED DO MUCH MORE
Every once in a while, in our chosen fields of work, we sometimes feel that we have reached the end of our tether. We give up all too easily, we settle for so much less, we offer too many excuses, and we blame others too readily when in fact we were designed to accomplish so much more.
But then, apparently from nowhere, people like Hyvon Ngetich appear and say to us: no, no, don’t give up, keep going there’s the finish line(“Running, always, you have to keep going, going. You have to die running.”). Perhaps, like other great people in our midst, she is too near us for us to appreciate the immortality of her example.
In a society broken and blinded by the most mundane considerations of ethnic affiliation, such an example that other societies use to rally their people together in pride and to give hope to school children passes unnoticed. And a dead Ministry of Sports cannot even perceive what the whole thing is about.
And yet it is people like Hyvon Ngetich who truly give meaning to the Olympic ethos of celebrating humanity. Their achievements take us beyond the little boxes of gender, race, ethnicity and religion that we close ourselves in. They lift us where we belong, to the human family.
The world is kept going by such humble people. In their fields of endevour, they do great things and cause social revolutions. Few of them go by the titles of “Excellency” or “Honorable”. Can you imagine a world without the telephone? Daily, by their ingenuity or sheer will power, people are doing great things and the results of their products or examples change our lives for the better for all time.
We must be thankful that it is not always necessary to obtain a government license or even help to accomplish this. With its enormous sense of importance and desire to lord it over the people it lives off, government is often an obstacle on the road to progress.
Do you want to know that you have reserves of energy you never knew of and which you can apply in whatever your next project is? Do you want to know that the helping hand you so desperately “need” – even a wheelchair – is not necessary?
Have you ever heard of the saying that the oppression of public opinion is exactly nothing compared to the severe restrictions you privately impose on yourself?
And do you really want to enjoy liberation from yourself?
Think of the epic ending of the Austin Marathon last weekend and contemplate the possibilities offered by the human spirit.
And as a Kenyan tightly ensconced in your ethnic cocoon, imagine the sheer splendour of life without that debilitating significance of somebody else’s surname. It’s a good life, and like John Conley, I was privileged to see the bravest race any of my compatriots ever ran and it has been my privilege to write in praise of Hyvon Ngetich.
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I write this on my own behalf as a Kenya football fan. Since football clubs in this country became fed up with thieving Kenya Football Federation and Football Kenya Limited officials and started the Kenya Premier League, there has been order in our league and sponsors have come on board.
For me, the most remarkable thing about the KPL is that it does not hold elections – the chairman of the club which wins the league automatically becomes chairman and that of the runners-up becomes his deputy.
Kenya as a country can learn something from the KPL. Elections in this country have consigned many people to their graves and left more others destitute. Who needs death festivals just to glorify some nebulous activity just because other people do it without killing each other?
We want to live. With will, Kenya, like the KPL, can find a way around the mayhem that comes every five years in the exalted name of democracy.
Who is football in this country about? It is about clubs and the players and staff who make them up. That’s who constitute the KPL. For all its faults, the KPL is what I think Kenya needs, not the other one.
I hold no brief for KPL and will cut them up like cabbage when I think they are out of line but for now, they are the ones I support and wish them the best of luck in this horrible mess we are in.