Nyantika Maiyoro, Kenya’s pioneer Olympian, is a bitter man.
Bitter because the country he dedicated his life to serve has abandoned him at the hour of need.
A nation that never seems to get it right when it comes to rewarding patriots has sunk to an all-time low by abandoning heroes and heroines who selflessly flew the national flag high on the global stage.
Maiyoro, 88, has been taken ill and has, for the last week, been admitted at Kisii’s Christa Marianne Hospital where his family is struggling to muster the finances to deal with the ever increasing medical bill.
Thankfully, the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (Nock) has accepted to take up the tab and, through its acting secretary general Francis Mutuku, is in contact with the family to help spare them the agony.
Maiyoro is not an ordinary Olympian.
He’s among Kenya’s first three competitors in athletics at the Olympics, a breakthrough achieved at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia, where Kenya competed for the first time, albeit as a British colony then.
In Melbourne, he featured in the 5,000 metres and finished an impressive seventh (13 minutes, 53.25 seconds) with Kanuti Sum finishing 31st in the marathon (2:58:42) while Joseph Leresae was 18th in the high jump.
Maiyoro and Sum were joined at the 1960 Olympics in Rome by three other athletes — Seraphine Antao (100 metres, 200 metres and 110 metres hurdles), Bartonjo Rotich (400m, 400m hurdles) and Arere Anentia (10,000m) — before paving way for the “Class of 64” at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo where Wilson Kiprugut bagged Kenya’s first ever Olympic medal, a bronze in the 800 metres.
Of the pioneer athletes from the 1956 Games, Maiyoro is the only one surviving.
But rather that enjoy State treatment as a national treasure, even the little gains he achieved in his stellar running days are being taken away from him.
In 2014, Maiyoro was detained in hospital for failing to pay a Sh39,000 bill.
At the time he was also battling to keep a house awarded to him in 1952 by the colonial government for his track exploits.
This time round, he is battling to settle an increasing bill at the Christa Marianne Hospital while at the same time fighting off land grabbers who have encroached on his 15-acre parcel of land awarded at independence by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, also for his athletics achievements.
Sadly, the government has never stood up for this legend, a veterinary officer in the colonial government who has lived a miserable life in retirement.
Such apathy only goes to discourage others keen on flying the nation’s flag at various global championships.
Nothing seems to have been done despite, according to Maiyoro, President Uhuru Kenyatta having directed Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i to follow up on the land issue at State House, Mombasa, in March, 2014.
Besides Maiyoro, Robert Ouko, a member of Kenya’s gold medal winning 4x400 metres relay quartet at the 1972 Munich Olympics, is also in distress.
Ouko, 71, is also battling illness in his Ngong home with a monthly bill of over Sh50,000 a month for medicines and chemotherapy, and requires financial assistance.
Yes, you guessed it. The government has done nothing for Ouko either.
Other members of the 1972 golden quartet — Charles Asati and Hezekiah Nyamao — have been virtually forgotten and are barely surviving at their homes in Nyamira and Kisii counties, respectively.
Stories also abound of Paralympians neglected and fleeced of their meagre incomes after doing duty for country.
Like Susan Gatwiri, a gold medallist in the 3,000m and 5,000m at the Special Olympics in USA four years ago, judged “Sportswoman Living with Disability” award winner at the 2015 Sports Personality of the Year Awards Gala.
Gatwiri, who is allegedly yet to receive her Sh400,000 government bonus for her medals, currently ekes out a living working as a house help in Nyeri on a paltry, Sh6,000-a-month salary to make ends meet.
And all this is happening after the Kenya Heroes Act of 2014 was assented into law on April 29, 2014.
This Act of Parliament, inter alia, principally provides for the recognition of heroes, selection and honouring of these heroes and establishment of a National Heroes Council.
The 13-member National Heroes Council is charged with the responsibility of formulating policy relating to national heroes and, according to Section 4 (c) of the Act, to “administer State assistance to national heroes where necessary.”
Section 4 (f) provides for the council to “have custody and oversee management of properties and institutions relating to heroes.”
Sadly, the Act has never been in force and the National Heroes Council is yet to be appointed.
Subsequently, in their old age, our heroes are losing their hard-earned assets and have no shoulder to lean on.
Recently, President Kenyatta appointed and met with the National Sports Fund Oversight Board, charged with the responsibility of ensuring Kenyan sport is well-financed.
In the same spirit, President Kenyatta should kick-start the National Heroes Council to end the pain our champions endure, post-retirement.
Only failed states fail to recognise their national heroes.
Kenya isn’t a failed state.
Officials at the Ministry of Sports and Heritage must move with speed to spare us the embarrassment of neglecting our heroes.
In the interim, the gesture by the Paul Tergat-led Olympic committee to bail out Mzee Maiyoro must be supported by further interventions by the government and Kenyans of good will.
Support for our champions will go a long way in encouraging others to compete under the Kenyan flag and help stem the tide of mass defections by our athletes to nations that are willing to reward them handsomely for their medals and appreciate national duty.
The Ministry of Sports and Heritage must immediately establish a database of national heroes and move with haste to reward their patriotism.
Anything short of this implies the government is happy to cheer on as our champions languish in poverty.
I doubt President Kenyatta is this heartless, and I’m sure he will whip his officials into action.
And this responsibility should not be shouldered by national government only.
County governments should, in their own way, make sure national heroes from their counties live comfortable lives.