- How fortunate of us not to be seeing the last of this great Kenyan track runner. His broad smile reminds us that a day spent without a good laugh is a day lost.
Sometime in 1978, when I was learning the ropes of my trade, I discovered to my pleasant surprise that my boss was a retired centre forward of the Uganda Cranes.
His name was Archelius Oundo. He was General Manager of the Stellascope Group whose weekly broadsheet, The Nairobi Times, I was writing for.
I had been hired by his brother, the legendary editor, Hilary Ng’weno.
Oundo was a good man. He seemed fascinated by this smooth chinned lad barely out of his teens who was mad about sports. He took me under his wing and my days were good.
One day, he was on one of his regular stopovers by my desk to chat me up. I remember our conversation with near perfect precision. (Somebody tell me: why is it easy to remember with minute details about what happened decades ago and hard to recall last month’s events?)
I asked Oundo: “Explain to me how a sportsman gets old. What were you feeling when you decided to retire from football.”
It must have been yet another of those questions that made him like me. He clearly enjoyed the innocence it bespoke and he relished his role as mentor. He smiled and thought. Then he said: “It’s your body. It tells you when it has had enough.”
“How does it do that?”
“In many small ways,” he said. “Like making a pass. What you used to do so easily now becomes difficult and it doesn’t matter how hard you try. In fact, the harder you try the clearer it becomes that you can’t make it. You also get tired quickly and yet in your younger days you felt you could go on forever.”
I remember finding that difficult to understand. I was sure that with more application, it should be possible to push back the years – and stay at the top of your game. That is why I probed him earnestly:
“And you can’t do anything about it?”
“No,” said. “You just accept. When it is time, it is time.”
I don’t know why I thought that disturbing. So I asked Oundo whether he woke up one day and found that he couldn’t be able to do what he could the previous day.
“Is it gradual or sudden?” I asked.
“Both – or somewhere in between,” he told me and by the look on his face, he seemed to be travelling back in time, to his playing days. Then he added, before he rose to go: “Think of it like the movement of a clock. Do you see the hour hand of a clock moving? Of course, you don’t. But it is moving. And depending on what you are doing or want to do, it could be moving very fast.”
In years to come, when it would be my own turn to mentor younger people, I added the movement of the sun to Oundo’s analogy. Do you see the sun moving?
Of course, you don’t. But depending on what you are doing or want to do, a day can be extremely short because the sun is travelling at a great speed. (Needless to say, it is the earth that is moving, not the sun, but this is not a geography lesson).
My conversation with Oundo lodged itself on my mind this week after watching the greatest steeplechaser of all time, Ezekiel Kemboi, finish 11th in the final of this race at the World Athletics Championships.
This is the event that he has dominated for the last 16 years. It stayed there as I read reports from our people in London about how he had called time on his steeplechase career and turned to my favourite race – the marathon.
How fortunate of us not to be seeing the last of this character – for a character Ezekiel Kemboi is. His broad smile incessantly reminds us that a day spent without a good laugh is a day lost. His happiness is infectious. Bathed in a deluge of sweat, he breaks into a jig and drags you into it. Joining Kemboi in victory is to lose yourself helplessly in unalloyed happiness.
The two-time Olympic champion wraps the national flag around himself as if it were a Masai shuka he bought on the roadside in Kajiado and it seems so authentically his own. And yet you still find yourself asking about this lean-as-leather distance running machine: how can so much strength be packed in so small a body?
In the faces of many athletes is the image you are never allowed to forget: the strain of the business. It is hard work, like Atlas carrying the world. But Kemboi makes it look fun.