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What Kenya is not doing to make a fortune out of sports

Hellen Obiri competes during the National Cross Country Championship held at the Ngong Race Course on February 13, 2021. [Stafford Ondego, Standard]

In our shrinking world, the juiciest first places seem to have already been hoarded by Western hegemons. Thus, the shrill voices of the rest of us can only be heard if we holler by cleverly leveraging our most exceptional abilities which, despite desperate cravings, the avaricious global-village ‘bullies’ can never counterfeit.

It is therefore critically important for any country to know that niche where it easily obliterates the rest of the pack. To take all the laurels while the competitors - some of them nuclear tipped for good measure - scramble for left-overs may be the only bright moment citizens of some little-known countries will ever enjoy in a long time. Nothing short of schadenfreude and celebration - especially if the opponent is Goliath and you are the puny David - is expected of the underdog.

That is why it is heartbreaking how the Kenyan state has often showed dismal concern for what is obviously its single most important cultural export, namely, the significant dominance by its middle and long-distance runners in world athletics.

For it is indeed a notable paradox how a small country situated in some nondescript corner of Africa, and whose name tongue-tied foreign announcers still mispronounce as Keen-yah, routinely obliterates foreign track teams at will. There is no other comparable place where magical legwork, per capita, comes as naturally as it does to ours.

Yet even individual Kenyan sports fans, care nary for their home-grown athletes, boasting instead of fantastical ‘ownership’ of big, foreign European football clubs. ‘I am Real Madrid damu’, Kenyan soccer fans of all shades will typically declare, as they take dreamy trips to the Barnebeu in Spain, on the way ‘meeting’ discerning European sports connoisseurs trooping here hoping to catch a single glimpse of our very own mighty Eliud Kipchoge!

Marathoner Eliud Kipchoge. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

In contrast, Switzerland has achieved much, and attracted substantial foreign capital by milking to the maximum its unique brand of peace and stability. Small and landlocked, the country in the middle of Europe, has successfully cemented the image for itself as a safe-banking haven.

As a result, all other nations rest assured of the safety of their gold bars inside the huge, impregnable vaults drilled into the Swiss Alps. I would too, if the peaceable custodian of my life savings fought her last battle in November, 1847! Other countries, such as United Arab Emirates also have their similar stories of success in unconventional ventures.

What if some boisterous and vociferous Western countries could upend reality and somehow take possession of our Kipchoges Keinos, the Temus, the Rudishas, the Tergats, the ‘Pocket Rockets’, the Nderebas - and here I am sampling from an endless pool? The whole world would be told from the highest agora who is the greatest! That is why it was such a winning gesture in 2019 when Laikipia University’s Senate showed the way by conferring the award of Doctor of Science (Honoris causa) upon Kipchoge Kipchoge.

Because of the apparent indifference of the state to its athletes, a serious threat to the development of our athletics has lately emerged in the form of petrodollar-induced defections. But seriously, who would hate greener grass across the fence if the alternative is a parched savannah, metaphorically speaking? As a consequence, our track supremacy is now reportedly on the decline.

What is worse is the outright mistreatment of our devoted GOATs (Greatest Of All Time) in the worst possible arenas. During the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics outing which is remembered as probably Kenya’s historical best, our athletes brought home a total of 13 medals of which six were gold.

Kenya ranked 15th globally in terms of medal tallies, far ahead of South Africa, the next best African country at number 30. This was despite the limited pool of events that Kenyans participated in. Think of it, the mighty USA was the only barrier to Kenya taking the top position in the track and field medals tally in the whole world!

NOC-K President Paul Tergat applauds during ta past athletics event at the Alexander Stadium, in Birmingham, central England. [Kelly Ayodi, Standard]

But then a tragic subtext to this great victory unfolded. There were systematic and extensive managerial disasters visited upon our team by the Kenya National Olympics Committee, which greatly eroded the morale of our athletes.

The Standard reported at the time that most of the star-medalists flew back home quietly, shunning pomp and fanfare, as their silent way of protesting official neglect. “We don’t want people to hog publicity from our arrival when they have treated us so badly,” one of them was reported as saying, hinting at the financial scandals by officials which denied him and others of their deserved upkeep.

I hope that President William Ruto’s government will make more effort to actively nurture, reward, and cherish the untiring sportspersons who bring Kenya so much glory and honour.

Although Kenya may never become the most industrialised country in the world, or own the most formidable war chest, it has a blank cheque if it wishes to become a must-go sporting Mecca.