Kenya’s Olympic history: Keep on running

| July 24, 2012 - 8.50UTC
Olympic history

The summer games are held every four years, and they’re centre stage for Africa’s athletics powerhouse to trumpet its bragging rights. Josaya Wasonga celebrates Kenya’s hard-won Olympics glory

Even armchair quarterbacks agree that Kenya’s world-beating Olympic athletes make winning look like a breeze. Well, the four dead-on words of their slogan give away their game. How, on winding country dirt roads, for donkey’s years, they combine right attitude with high altitude to create magic on the Tartan Track.

“Train hard, win easy.”

However, it’s been anything but easy since 1956 when Kenya, then a British protectorate, participated in the Melbourne Olympics. It wasn’t until the 1964 games in Tokyo that Wilson Kiprugut opened the medals floodgates by winning Kenya’s first; a bronze in the men’s 800m.

The next Olympics – 1968, in Mexico City – started what has become an Olympic tradition: Kenya’s dominance of the men’s 3,000m steeplechase. Amos Biwott and Benjamin Kogo completed the gold and silver double.

Fast-forward to the 1972 Munich games. Enter Kipchoge “Kip” Keino. This lanky Kenyan, with a gap in his lower teeth, set the stadium alight by taking gold in the men’s 3,000m steeplechase, and silver in the 1,500m race. In coming years and competitions, Kip would go on to add loads of silverware to his cabinet. He’s also set up a high-altitude training centre to nurture future champions, and has in the process become Kenya’s de facto sports ambassador.

Gender and the Olympics

If one looks at Kenya’s medals harvest, what may come to mind is the somewhat sexist quip, “It’s a man’s world”. It wasn’t until the 1996 Atlanta games that Kenya’s women athletes inscribed their names in the honours list, thanks to Pauline Konga’s silver in the women’s 5,000m.

Not that the representation has been lacking. Kenya’s women volleyball players competed in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics – although they finished a disappointing eleventh on both occasions.

In the 2000 games, Kenya won seven medals, with Joyce Chepchumba saving girls the blushes by bagging a bronze in the women’s marathon.

For all intents and purposes, the 2008 Beijing Olympics can be called the girls’ golden outing. Pamela Jelimo and Nancy Lagat dwarfed their competitors in the podium by taking gold in the women’s 800m and 1,500m, respectively. Janeth “Kapsabet Express” Jepkosgei, Catherine Ndereba and Eunice Jepkorir took silver in women’s 800m, marathon and 3,000m steeplechase, respectively. Going by the last game’s impressive results, in London 2012, Kenyan girls have every chance of success.

Source of national pride

Kenyans are sports freaks who follow the performance of their teams religiously. When our athletes return from national duty having conquered the world, they become a source of national pride. At the airport, they’re welcomed with song and dance and mursik, the traditional fermented milk.

Veteran former national athletics coach John Velzian, 85, summed it up in an interview on Kenya’s Citizen TV. He recalled how President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta personally went to the airport to welcome the national team back from the 1965 first edition of the All Africa Games, a year after independent Kenya graced her first Olympics.

“So fantastic (it was) in fact, that instead of us being taken to State House to meet the President, the President came to the airport to meet us.”

However, whenever the Olympics team returns home crestfallen, the reception – from airport to State House – is cold.

This harsh reality will most probably make Kenya’s London Olympics contingent go for broke.

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