- Henry Rono and Stephen Muchoki were the first Kenyan sports people to be decorated with national honours. Kenyatta also directed that they each be given a token of appreciation, which he specified to be eight of the best grade cows from the ADC farm nearest them.
- The cows were to be accompanied by an unspecified number of goats. The gifts never arrived. When they went to discuss logistics, Darius Mbela, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Culture and Social Services, scolded them for “introducing politics in a purely sports matter”. He ordered them out of his office.
- In January this year, a destitute Henry Rono, who plunged into alcoholism at the tail end of his running career before finding his feet again, sent out an SOS from the US. He wanted help to come home but couldn’t raise money for the air ticket. Friends, well-wishers and old fans scrambled to help, unable to bear the thought of what one of the nation’s all-time sports greats had become.
In politics, it is sometimes expedient to say one thing when you mean its opposite. I was in the middle of this behaviour over a few sunny days in 1980 when Muhammad Ali came to persuade Kenya to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games. He was here as an emissary of US President Jimmy Carter, who had decided that, as punishment for the then Soviet Union invading neighbouring Afghanistan, the world should boycott the Moscow Olympics.
Carter sent his top diplomats to Europe to drum up support for his campaign but dispatched Ali here to do his bidding. Ali was wildly popular in Africa.
Kenyans loved Ali but nobody wanted to hear the message that he had brought. President Moi summoned us to State House to let us know which way Kenya was going to go, although, given the geopolitics of the day, it was a cinch to us all that the Olympics were lost.
I had never been in the midst of a more subdued group of sportspeople. Nobody wanted to hear that word – boycott. They had been through it in 1976 when the African continent boycotted the Games of Montreal en masse, and now this was getting to be too much.
And yet this was Kenya, where the President was an absolute ruler. Every national institution, Parliament and the Judiciary included, were under his thumb. In Britain, where the British government had decided to go along with its US ally, the National Olympic Committee proclaimed its independence and decided that Britain would participate in the Games.
But to express its solidarity with Afghan athletes whose homeland was now under foreign occupation, the British Nock decided that its athletes would compete under the Olympic flag. Several European countries followed the British example and thus found a way to go around their governments while still showing their sensibilities to the unfolding tragedy in central Asia.
Over the purported independence of Kenya’s National Olympic Committee, President Moi announced that Kenya would boycott the Games. As the sullen groups of sportsmen and women broke up camps, Stephen Muchoki, Commonwealth and world amateur boxing champion, drew me to himself and, wearing the face of a mourner, begged me: “Please, can you use your newspaper to appeal to the President to reconsider? I missed a chance last time and now I have missed this. I will never get another chance because I will be too old in 1984.”
Meanwhile, various sports leaders, themselves in no better mental shape than Muchoki, were putting out statements in support of the President’s “wise” decision. All of them expressed support for him and his government and reaffirmed their unflinching loyalty to the Nyayo philosophy of love, peace and unity. But beneath their breath, they wept. It wasn’t very different from the reaction of a devastated person who thanks God upon the death of a loved one.
That episode highlighted the lowly position Kenya’s sports constituency occupies in the pecking order when it comes to bargaining with politicians. It was at the bottom then and remains the same today. It is a constituency that begs for government help and can only hope for it, nothing more. And successive governments since independence have been happy to keep things that way.
Ironically, it is President Moi’s tyrannical government that stands head and shoulders above all others in empowering Kenya’s sports lovers. In building Kenya’s only two international sports stadiums, Nyayo and Kasarani, in hosting the 1987 All Africa Games, in attending sports meetings from school and district level to international competitions, President Moi demonstrated time and again that he had a heart for sport.
The only other national leader to whom sports also comes as second nature is former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Sports lovers must wonder how their lot would turn out were he to occupy State House.
Kenya’s path has been quite unlike that followed by some other African leaders of the past. Ghana’s first President, Kwame Nkrumah, had a vision of a United States of Africa. Seek ye the political kingdom first, he said, and everything else would fall in place.
One of the devices Nkrumah used in pursuit of this vision was football. He promoted two clubs, Asante Kotoko and Hearts of Oak, both of which became African football giants, and lavished money on the national team, the Black Stars, who went on to win the Africa Cup of Nations four times and the silver medal on five occasions.
Nkrumah’s lead was taken up by Guinea’s Ahmed Sekou Toure, Zaire’s (DR Congo) Mobutu Sese Seko and Uganda’s Idi Amin. It is a curiosity of history that some of the most blood thirsty tyrants have also been exceedingly benevolent towards the young people who compete under their country’s flags.
That Kenya’s sportsmen and women must find themselves without training facilities, sometimes abandoned in far-off airports by negligent officials, begging for basic upkeep and appreciated only as objects of photo ops by national leaders, must come as unspeakable disappointment. Alone, among all other constituencies, they bring the country together when it needs it most.
Like the forests that work as the lungs of our increasingly congested urban spaces, our sportsmen and women have been the safety valves that release huge amounts of pressure that builds up from political disagreements. Politics and religion divide, sports unites. It is a national source of positive energy. This is self-evident.
SPECIAL PLACE IN OUR LIVES
From Nyandika Maiyoro to Eliud Kipchoge, from Joe Kadenge to Victor Wanyama, from Joginder Singh to Patrick Njiru, from Sabina Chebichi to Vivian Cheruiyot, and from the Hit Squad to the Malkia Strikers, the greatness of Kenya’s sports superstars has always occupied a special place in our lives. But we use words in their praise that we rarely match in deed.