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Politics, patriotism and holding Kenya together through the magic of sport

Sunday October 20 2019

Kenyan distance running legend Henry Rono. PHOTO | FILE |

Kenyan distance running legend Henry Rono. PHOTO | FILE |  NATION MEDIA GROUP

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In politics, it is sometimes expedient to say one thing when you mean its opposite. I was in the middle of this behaviour over a few sunny days in 1980 when Muhammad Ali came to persuade Kenya to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games. He was here as an emissary of US President Jimmy Carter, who had decided that, as punishment for the then Soviet Union invading neighbouring Afghanistan, the world should boycott the Moscow Olympics.

Carter sent his top diplomats to Europe to drum up support for his campaign but dispatched Ali here to do his bidding. Ali was wildly popular in Africa.

Boxing great Muhammad Ali during a bout in
Boxing great Muhammad Ali during a bout in 1974. Ali passed away on June 4, 2016. PHOTO | FILE |

Kenyans loved Ali but nobody wanted to hear the message that he had brought. President Moi summoned us to State House to let us know which way Kenya was going to go, although, given the geopolitics of the day, it was a cinch to us all that the Olympics were lost.

I had never been in the midst of a more subdued group of sportspeople. Nobody wanted to hear that word – boycott. They had been through it in 1976 when the African continent boycotted the Games of Montreal en masse, and now this was getting to be too much.

And yet this was Kenya, where the President was an absolute ruler. Every national institution, Parliament and the Judiciary included, were under his thumb. In Britain, where the British government had decided to go along with its US ally, the National Olympic Committee proclaimed its independence and decided that Britain would participate in the Games.


But to express its solidarity with Afghan athletes whose homeland was now under foreign occupation, the British Nock decided that its athletes would compete under the Olympic flag. Several European countries followed the British example and thus found a way to go around their governments while still showing their sensibilities to the unfolding tragedy in central Asia.

Over the purported independence of Kenya’s National Olympic Committee, President Moi announced that Kenya would boycott the Games. As the sullen groups of sportsmen and women broke up camps, Stephen Muchoki, Commonwealth and world amateur boxing champion, drew me to himself and, wearing the face of a mourner, begged me: “Please, can you use your newspaper to appeal to the President to reconsider? I missed a chance last time and now I have missed this. I will never get another chance because I will be too old in 1984.”

President Jomo Kenyatta honours boxer Stephen
President Jomo Kenyatta honours boxer Stephen Muchoki with the Order of the Burning Spear in Mombasa. PHOTO | FILE |

Meanwhile, various sports leaders, themselves in no better mental shape than Muchoki, were putting out statements in support of the President’s “wise” decision. All of them expressed support for him and his government and reaffirmed their unflinching loyalty to the Nyayo philosophy of love, peace and unity. But beneath their breath, they wept. It wasn’t very different from the reaction of a devastated person who thanks God upon the death of a loved one.

That episode highlighted the lowly position Kenya’s sports constituency occupies in the pecking order when it comes to bargaining with politicians. It was at the bottom then and remains the same today. It is a constituency that begs for government help and can only hope for it, nothing more. And successive governments since independence have been happy to keep things that way.

Ironically, it is President Moi’s tyrannical government that stands head and shoulders above all others in empowering Kenya’s sports lovers. In building Kenya’s only two international sports stadiums, Nyayo and Kasarani, in hosting the 1987 All Africa Games, in attending sports meetings from school and district level to international competitions, President Moi demonstrated time and again that he had a heart for sport.

The only other national leader to whom sports also comes as second nature is former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Sports lovers must wonder how their lot would turn out were he to occupy State House.


Kenya’s path has been quite unlike that followed by some other African leaders of the past. Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, had a vision of a United States of Africa. Seek ye the political kingdom first, he said, and everything else would fall in place.

One of the devices Nkrumah used in pursuit of this vision was football. He promoted two clubs, Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak, both of which became African football giants, and lavished money on the national team, the Black Stars, who went on to win the Africa Cup of Nations four times and the silver medal on five occasions.

Nkrumah’s lead was taken up by Guinea’s Ahmed Sekou Toure, Zaire’s (DR Congo) Mobutu Sese Seko and Uganda’s Idi Amin. It is a curiosity of history that some of the most blood thirsty tyrants have also been exceedingly benevolent towards the young people who compete under their country’s flags.

That Kenya’s sportsmen and women must find themselves without training facilities, sometimes abandoned in far-off airports by negligent officials, begging for basic upkeep and appreciated only as objects of photo ops by national leaders, must come as unspeakable disappointment. Alone, among all other constituencies, they bring the country together when it needs it most.

Like the forests that work as the lungs of our increasingly congested urban spaces, our sportsmen and women have been the safety valves that release huge amounts of pressure that builds up from political disagreements. Politics and religion divide, sports unites. It is a national source of positive energy. This is self-evident.


From Nyandika Maiyoro to Eliud Kipchoge, from Joe Kadenge to Victor Wanyama, from Joginder Singh to Patrick Njiru, from Sabina Chebichi to Vivian Cheruiyot, and from the Hit Squad to the Malkia Strikers, the greatness of Kenya’s sports superstars has always occupied a special place in our lives. But we use words in their praise that we rarely match in deed.

Kenya national women’s volleyball team players,
Kenya national women’s volleyball team players, accompanied by head coach Paul Bitok, display their African Games gold medals upon arrival at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport from Rabat on September 2, 2019. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO |

We call them ambassadors who put our good name on the world map but we balk at naming our public utilities like stadiums, roads and schools after them. We want a piece of them when they win but don’t wish to know about the hard work that goes into that winning. Even worse, when they are consumed in the rigours of competition, the worst people among us who have wormed their way into sports leadership seize that opportunity to steal from them. Betrayal seems to be a way of life in Kenya sport.

How can Kenya quantify the contribution of its sportsmen and women in holding the country together during moments of national stress? How can the country measure the size of their example in showing the people that there is a lot more that unites than divides them? They compete fiercely but take their victories with respect to their defeated opponents. Defeat is never the end of their world, and they accept it with humility and stoicism, remembering that tomorrow, too, is a day, and it might be better.

But defeat in politics sometimes leads to death. Competition for economic resources has sometimes led to seemingly interminable wars that have the national government at its wits end until a Tegla Loroupe initiates a peace marathon and the ground changes.

Former New York marathon champion Tegla Loroupe
Former New York marathon champion Tegla Loroupe (centre) takes part in an 840-kilometre (522-mile) "Walk for Peace" against ethnic violence in Baringo on August 6, 2015. Top Kenyan athletes completed in the giant walk, accompanied by cheering crowds. PHOTO | TONY KARUMBA |

Loroupe is a Kenyan icon, not different from Didier Drogba in the Ivory Coast. She has used the power of sport to draw the attention to the conditions of marginalised peoples in Pokot and her peace marathons have had a transformative effect to the communities of her homeland.

Yet Loroupe, a former world marathon champion and global spokesperson for peace, education and women’s empowerment, won’t rate a visible seat in Mashujaa Day celebrations. At least not in national ones. Only many politicians, some weathered but still pulling strings behind the scenes, will. She is a good embodiment of the low esteem with which sport is regarded at the national level.

A reading of our history during the competitive era of our politics shows that we have always turned to the winning ways of our world beaters as an antidote to the negative energy from partisan politics. Without trying to be, our track and field sportsmen and women are the responders who douse the fires of hateful rage burning in our hearts that sometimes turns into violence.

In March 1988, Kenya went through an election that broke the single party era’s backbone. It was the infamous queue voting system in which the shortest queues had a habit of turning out the biggest number of voters in the final count. President Daniel arap Moi’s much-touted “open-air democracy” turned into brazen daylight robbery. The country plunged into a political convulsion that finally ended in Kanu’s surrender of political power monopoly in 1991.

But as streets became theatres of violent demonstrations, the Seoul Olympics came by in September and people momentarily forgot their political differences.

“Yes, it’s a gold!” the Nation screamed in a banner headline as Paul Ereng won the 800 metres race to open the Olympic gold chase. It appeared as if every Kenyan was in South Korea. The sports pages went to the front and, momentarily, the stress of politics was sorted.

The 1988 Olympic medal winners introduced to
The 1988 Olympic medal winners introduced to the crowd at JKIA soon after landing. From left to right, John Ngugi (5,000m, gold), Peter Rono (1,500m, gold), boxer Chris Sande (middle-weight, bronze), Peter Koech (3,000m steeplechase, silver), Julius Kariuki (3,000m steeplechase, gold), Paul Ereng (800m, gold) and Kipkemboi Kimeli (10,000m, bronze). PHOTO | FILE |

With five gold, two silver and one bronze medals, it was the country’s best Olympic outing thus far and people were completely distracted from politics while all this was going on. But only for a while, of course. We were soon back to our grim ways.

In short order, we were back in election mode. The 1992 polls were held in December and were the first in the restored multi-party era. They were violent. One quality weekly magazine The Financial Review, had a macabre cover of a dead man with arrows sticking out of his body. The caption read: The Killing Fields. The photograph was taken somewhere in the Rift Valley, the cradle of the nation’s athletics.

Where before people had been screaming their heads out together cheering fellow Kenyans overrunning the world, they now menacingly faced each other as enemies of different ethnicities. The old curse had reared its ugly head again and the cycle of peace during sports competitions and war during elections continued — as it does to this day.

There is a poignant footnote to the Muchoki episode I mentioned at top of this story. The other Kenya sports giant to miss out on the 1980 Olympics was Henry Rono, who at that time held four world records at the same time — the 3,000m flat, the 3,000m steeplechase, the 5000m and the 10,000m.

Rono and Muchoki became the first Kenyan sports people to be decorated with national honours when the first President Kenyatta awarded them the Moran of the Burning Spear shortly before he died in 1978.

He also directed that they each be given a token of appreciation, which he specified to be eight of the best grade cows from the ADC farm nearest them.

The cows were to be accompanied by an unspecified number of goats. The gifts never arrived. When they went to discuss logistics, Darius Mbela, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Culture and Social Services, scolded them for “introducing politics in a purely sports matter”. He ordered them out of his office.

In January this year, a destitute Henry Rono, who plunged into alcoholism at the tail end of his running career before finding his feet again, sent out an SOS from the US. He wanted help to come home but couldn’t raise money for the air ticket. Friends, well-wishers and old fans scrambled to help, unable to bear the thought of what one of the nation’s all-time sports greats had become.

I thought: Henry Rono does not need pity or alms. What he needs is President Uhuru Kenyatta to keep his father’s promise and give him the full value of the gifts given to him in 1978.

There are enough Kenyans who know “mazematic” (with due acknowledgment to Pastor Ng’ang’a) and can calculate the possible earnings from eight grade cows from 1978 to the present.

But what happened? The President’s order found new beneficiaries who didn’t take eight, but practically depleted some farms of their entire stock. It’s all in the Ndung’u Report. That is how Kenya works.