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When athletics is much more than a sporting event

By Rosemary Were | Published Tue, July 18th 2017 at 00:00, Updated July 17th 2017 at 19:59 GMT +3
Kenya's George Meitamei Manangoi celebrates his win in the 1,500m finals. /IAAF

New Kenyan heroes were born over the past few days. Almost overnight, the likes of George Manangoi, Caren Chebet and Dominic Ndingiti have become familiar names across the country, after they secured gold medals for Kenya at the World Under-18 Athletics Championships in Nairobi.

In fact, the entire team made our country proud, finishing fourth on the medal table. An incredible feat against the world's very best young athletic talent. And beyond the track stars, the championship itself was another massive Kenyan success story. Flawless organisation, a huge, passionate crowd of 55,000 on the final day and justified high praise from IAAF chief, Lord Sebastian Coe.

There are murmurs already that given the success of the past several days, Kenyan authorities are preparing a bid to host the World Athletics Championship. It would be by far the biggest sporting occasion our country has ever witnessed.

Major sporting events almost always reflect wider trends in the host country. The 1998 soccer World Cup in France signalled the emergence of a truly multi-cultural nation. And of course the 1995 rugby World Cup in South Africa showed that the era of Apartheid was finally gone.

And so, the success we have witnessed both on and off the track is evidently excellent news for Kenya. We have showcased to the world what we can achieve. It is about the emergence of a new bold Kenya ready to take on the world.
We have demonstrated that this is a country of growth and achievement. We have shown that Kenya is on the road to progress, so long as it remains on this path. With more Kenyans connected to the National Grid than ever before, the spectacle at Kasarani was no doubt witnessed by tens of millions. Surely, the face of Kenya is changing for the better.

There are those who have consistently been opposed to investing in this type of large-scale, transformational development. To these, the SGR was a waste of money.

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The same forces are lining up to oppose the Naivisha Dry Port project, ludicrously describing it as "economic sabotage". For this group, Kenya is apparently forever destined to be under-developed, a poor relation.

And even in the campaigns, they have offered no development plan.
Back to progress, and the IAAF World Under-18 Athletics Championships demonstrated another, perhaps no less important facet of our national development – Kenya's place on the world stage. It should be no surprise that our capital hosted the event. In recent years, our global profile has skyrocketed.

Visits by world leaders and high profile global conferences have become commonplace. President Kenyatta is one of the few African leaders to enjoy a seat at the table of global decision-making, having been invited to both the recent G7 summit.

Under his leadership, Kenya is rightly viewed as a model of development and progress for Africa.

In this regard, the world is also prepared to put its money where its mouth is, with direct foreign investment in Kenya having spiked to $1.9 billion last year, compared to just $400 million in 2013.

Our foreign policy agenda should move beyond pulling the Kenyan army out of Somalia or making enemies with our neighbours. First, moving the troops out of Samila would have disastrous diplomatic consequences.

It would place us at odds with our regional partners in AMISOM as well as international allies such as the United States, who are committed to military action against Al-Shabaab. And of course, let us not forget that retreating from Somalia would endanger Kenyan lives.

And so, as we bask in the glory of a successful athletics competition both on and off the track, we must realise that it marks a crossroads.

The IAAF World Under-18 Championships could prove to be another step on the road to bigger and better things for our country.

In the sporting arena, there is the knowledge that we can deliver. In a wider context, it further increases our global credentials and is another milestone in our national development.

On the other hand, the World Under-18 Championships could prove to be the pinnacle. Like the 1986 All-Africa Games, which Kenya also hosted, it may prove to be a highlight not to be repeated for decades.

And like the interim years, which followed then, it could signal a period of stagnation and inertia. By all means, we should not allow that.

 Ms Were is Senior Programme Officer - Communications & Media at National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC)