Sunday’s move by the world athletics governing body to revisit track and field history is something Kenya needs to heavily borrow from – and immediately - to secure and cash in on our envious sporting past.
On Sunday evening at opulent Monte Carlo’s Le Meridien Hotel, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), under its Heritage programme, celebrated the wealth of achievements by seven great legends of the sport, fondly referred to as the “Fantastic Seven.”
The IAAF also launched the “World Athletics Heritage Plaque” which will be placed at 12 historic venues across the world to celebrate exploits of track and field legends across the world.
The seven legends honoured on Sunday are Emil Voigt (Great Britain), Eric Lemming (Sweden), Paavo Nurmi (Finland), Jesse Owens (USA), Fanny Blankers-Koen (Netherlands), Emil Zatopek (Czech Republic) and Irena Szewinska (Poland).
IAAF’s “World Athletics Heritage Plaque” will be located at the Manchester Harriers and Athletics Club to celebrate Voigt’s exploits, at the Stockholm Olympic Stadium to honour Lemming and at the Paavo Nurmen Stadium in Turku, Finland, in memory of the great Nurmi.
Addis Ababa will also be handed a plaque which will be placed at the Abebe Bikila Stadium to show respect for legendary Bikila, a two-time Olympic marathon champion famous for conquering the 42-kilometre distance barefoot!
Other locations include Babe Didrickson Zaharias Museum, USA (celebrating two-time Olympic javelin and hurdles champion Mildred Didrikson), Meiji Jingu Gaien Nikoniko Park, Japan (Olympic triple jump champion Chuei Nambu), Ferry Field, Michigan, USA (four-time Olympic gold medallist Jesse Owens), FBK Games Stadium, Netherlands (four-time Olympic gold medallist Fanny Blankers-Koen), Golden Spike Stadium, Czech Republic (four-time Olympic champion Emil Zatopek).
The rest of the locations are Centro Esportivo e de Lazer Tiete, Brazil (two-time Olympic triple jump champion Adhemar Da Silva), Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground (Betty Cuthbert, four-time Olympic sprints gold medallist) and the Stadion Zawiszy Imienia in Poland (celebrating three-time Olympic sprints gold medallist and 400m world record holder Irena Szewinska).
Attending Sunday’s reception in Monaco, organized by IAAF President Seb Coe and Chris Turner, the latter an athletics journalist and avid sports archivist, I reflected, at how we have, sadly, denied our young generation the opportunity to imbibe Kenya’s rich sporting history.
Coe and Turner received several artefacts from the families of the “Fantastic Seven”, including running spikes, competition vest, tracksuit and 106-year-old javelin.
Just last month, we buried a legend, Naftali Bon, a pioneer Olympic relay medallist.
And with him went irretrievable history.
Before him, Kenya’s first Olympic gold medallist Naftali Temu was laid to rest without ceremony in 2003, his family in Kisii having struggled to settle his medical bills.
Recently, while visiting Olympic legend Wilson Kiprugut Chumo in Kericho, I was stunned at the priceless memorabilia in his humble home, including the 800 metres bronze medal he won at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Kenya’s first ever Olympic medal.
For all the successes we have enjoyed in various sports over the years, especially track and field, we have done very little to secure our heritage, something the Ministry of Sports and Heritage needs to be concerned about.
A few years ago, Athletics Kenya launched an athletics museum, but this really didn’t take off the ground.
Legends like Nyantika Maiyoro, Kenya’s pioneer international athlete and 1953 Indian Ocean Games veteran, hold a lot of history that should be archived while they still live.
Besides archiving fauna and flora, the National Museums of Kenya should trumpet a dedicated sports museum, and set it up somewhere in the North Rift on Western region to immortalize our trailblazers and also ignite traffic to the western tourism circuit.
Just like Swede Eric Lemming’s century-old javelin used in his gold medal hurl at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, donated to the IAAF on Sunday, it would be nostalgic to see Maiyoro’s spikes, Temu’s bronze medal or indeed Robert Wangila’s 1988 gold medal boxing gloved in exhibition.
And such artefacts should not be limited to the early days, or to track and field alone, but should run into the modern era to include Julius Yego’s world title-winning javelin, David Rudisha’s record-breaking spikes, Eliud Kipchoge’s iconic 2018 Berlin Marathon Nike shoes and Pamela Jelimo’s vest that celebrated Kenya’s first ever women’s Olympic gold medal in 2008.
Equally, it would be dreamlike to see “Flying Sikh” Joginder Singh’s Safari Rally-winning Volvo PV544, Patrick Njiru’s Subaru Impreza, Avtar Singh’s hockey stick that yielded four goals in the 1971 Hockey World Cup at which Kenya finished fourth overall, or Maurice Odumbe’s 1996 man-of-the-match winning bat and gloves that floored the West Indies by 73 runs at the World Cup in Pune, India.
What Coe, Turner and the team at the IAAF Heritage department have done to relive global track and field history is most certainly the way forward, something we must borrow heavily from.
Definitely the gauntlet thrown at custodians of our heritage.
In tandem with this effort should be more government attention to our legends and their families, many of whom wallow in misery, having been celebrated at their high moments and neglected at the time of need.
Like Bon, who was buried a pauper last month after being celebrated as a legend when he bagged silver for Kenya in the relays at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
Meanwhile, I’m sure we will soon see an IAAF’s “World Athletics Heritage Plaque” at the Nandi Bears Club in Nandi Hills, where our Olympic legend Kipchoge Keino was born!