Now that the Olympic and Paralympic flames have been extinguished, Carol Gachiengo asks if our performance at London 2012 can spur on a new generation of Kenyan sporting heroes?
On a cloudy Saturday in September the Ligi Ndogo football pitch on Ngong Road is a hub of activity. Wherever you look, kids in team colours are hustling, focus on their faces – the joyful hustle of those committed to serious fun.
Watching them give their all is illuminating – and a reminder of why we play sports. For the youngster in the soccer league, discipline, team spirit, leadership and responsibility are the foundations of success. Above all, it is obvious they are enjoying themselves.
And isn’t that the key thing? Following what has been called a “dismal performance” by Kenya in the London Olympics, it’s about time we asked: what is the meaning of honour and success in sport?
We are able
For an example of sportsmanship, we need look no further than the Paralympics. At the event’s closing ceremony, Kenyan Paralympian Mary Nakhumicha Zakayo was awarded the Whang Youn Dai Achievement award for exemplifying the spirit of the Paralympic Games. The award, with its mission ‘to enhance the will of people with an impairment to conquer their adversities through the pursuit of excellence in sports’, reminds us that sport is not an end in itself but a means to self improvement and a way to bring down barriers.
Zakayo embodies this. Since breaking the Paralympics javelin world record in 1992 (a record that still stands), she has inspired people – especially women – with disabilities in Kenya: “They are now getting involved with sports – not just athletics and field events but also sports like wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball,” she says. “I hope to use the platform this award has created to reach out to many disabled people in Kenya and the world. I want to reassure people that disability is not inability.”
It’s not just Zakayo, though – there is something special about Kenya’s entire Paralympics squad. While the Olympic team may have disappointed, the small Paralympic team of just 13 athletes returned home with seven medals, despite minimal support and acclaim. Two of the team, David Korir (T13 800m and 1,500m) and Abraham Tarbei (T46 800m and 1,500m), won two medals each; three of them, Tarbei, Korir and Samwel Kimani (T11 1,500m), broke world records. Blind marathon runner Henry Wanyoike did not finish his race, but remains an inspiration: he has used his past successes to establish the Henry Wanyoike Foundation, which helps poor families start businesses and provides education bursaries.
Each member of the Paralympics Kenya team has a unique story but, collectively, theirs is a tale of the triumph of the human spirit.
Not just athletics
The under-sung achievements of our Paralympians should resonate with all sportspeople, not just those with disabilities – and not just runners. Kenya has excelled in athletics for so long that we believe it defines our sports landscape. Kenyans are distance runners, end of story. But, really, it’s only the beginning.
Kenya could compete in a variety of sports – it will just take hard work.
A quote from basketball star Michael Jordan sums this up: “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Victory demands that champions-in-the-making endure some losses. It is the price of experience, and an important part of the learning process. The competing and striving to be better are more important than the results themselves.
Remember when cross-country skier Philip Boit became Kenya’s first and only Winter Olympian in 1998? No one cared that he finished last – he had represented Kenya in an arena where no one else ever has. Likewise Julius Yego, who at London 2012 became not only the first Olympic javelin participant from Kenya, but made it to the finals.
Commonwealth Games boxing silver medallist Benson Gicharu, back home from his first Olympic Games, realises the value of the experience: “It was definitely worthwhile because I learned so much I can share with fellow boxers here. Experience is the best teacher,” he says.
Although Gicharu did not make it to the semi-finals in the Olympics this time, his hard work is already paying off. He will now be competing in the World Series Boxing (WSB), an international competition for amateurs. This means Gicharu will participate in many more matches, allowing him to widen his experience and earn some money.
Kenya Amateur Boxing Association (ABA) chairman John Kameta says he is hopeful about the future of boxing in Kenya – “but mine is realistic hope,” he adds. When he took over leadership of the ABA last year, no Kenyan boxer had qualified for the Olympics; subsequently two went on to compete, Gicharu and Elizabeth Andiego, Kenya’s first female boxer.
Kameta says corruption has been holding back the advancement of sport in Kenya, which is why he has been resolute in ensuring boxers get their allowances, and that money coming into the sport goes to purchasing much-needed equipment. Kameta has big plans for boxing; he’s arranging a fundraising walk, and is organising championship bouts at football fields such as Kasarani, so more Kenyans can come to watch.
Hope for the future?
Most of Kenya’s running stars come from one community in the Rift Valley, around the town of Eldoret. Subsequently, interest in athletics is so great here that simple races in Eldoret, Iten or Kapsabet attract more than 3,000 athletes.
Many local children – who see the athletes’ big farms and houses – view running as a way out of poverty. Every day they run to school and back; many have no choice, but they do not complain. Twelve-year-old Michael Kibet says he loves running to school because it is giving him the foundation he knows he will need to become an athlete. These kids have converted their arduous commute into an investment into their future.
Legends from the region, including Kipchoge Keino, now Chairman of the National Olympics Committee of Kenya, and Daniel Komen, world record-holder in the 3,000m, operate private schools where they inspire kids to take up athletics. “Many of our young ones develop an interest in running because they watch the Games and see how everyone is cheering our team,” says Komen.
There is a move to ensure that sport is not just a preserve for the rich. Nairobi’s Ligi Ndogo football centres have bursary programmes for talented kids who cannot afford the membership fees. Its Gigiri Centre reaches out to kids from the Muchatha and Banana Hill areas; among its objectives is ‘to narrow the gap between poor and rich Kenyan communities through sports’.
There are many excellent sports clubs with programmes for children. For example, Mathare Youth Sports Association has produced top footballers, including Dennis Oliech, who recently joined Turkish club Kasimpasa Spor on a three-year deal worth Ksh 7million a month. Other clubs such as South B United Sports Academy and Kariobangi Sharks also provide opportunities for kids to develop their sporting talents regardless of financial background.
Young Kenyans are looking beyond athletics and football too. Mwangi Muchiri, president of Roller Sports Kenya, says he sees a grand future: “My dream is to see roller skaters making a living from the sport,” he says. Roller skating has become popular among young Kenyans; Mwangi says about 60% of skaters are under 13. “We want them to start young and grow with the sport,” he adds.
In Nairobi there are organised skating clubs in neighbourhoods such as Shauri Moyo, Karen, Kawangware and Kangemi. At the National Championships, held at Kasarani Stadium in April, there were a record 234 participants. With the Federation Internationale de Rollersports (FIRS) vying for a spot in the 2020 Olympic Games, it is not such a distant dream that Kenyans could participate in Olympic roller sports one day.
A lesson learned
Sports bring out the best and worst in fans. When our team wins, spirits are lifted. But, oh, when they lose! Some fans swear or throw stones; some have even ended their lives, so great is their despair.
But sports should bring out the best in all of us. It’s not how many medals we hang in the hall of fame that counts, it is the lessons we learn along the way; lessons about losing with dignity, winning with humility and making a positive impact. The age-old Swahili wisdom comes to mind: Asiye kubali kushindwa si mshindani – it is a poor sportsman who cannot handle defeat.