Daring abroad: More Kenyan athletes demanding translators and speaking their language

Recently, after his historic triumph at the New York City Marathon, Evans Chebet from Elgeyo Marakwet County insisted, for the second time in America, on addressing the world in Swahili.

Chebet had also refused to address the media after winning the Boston Marathon in April. On both occasions, race organisers had to seek the services of an interpreter to translate the interviews to English.

“Hii ni mara ya kwanza, nashukuru Mungu kwa sababu unajua Boston ilikuwa hard course. Niliona course ya New York, the last five ama six kilometres ni tough. Nikiona Boston and New York, nilikuwa najua niko na experience because Boston ilikuwa ngumu kuliko New York,” Chebet told a reporter in Swahili, in an interview aided by a translator. This loosely translate into “This is my first time (racing in New York), I thank God because, as you know Boston was a hard course. The last five and six kilometres in New York City Marathon were tough. I compared Boston and New York, but I knew I had experience because Boston marathon was tougher than New York City marathon.”

In 2017, Dominic Samson Ndigiti, who clinched a bronze medal in 10,000m walk race medal at the World Under-18 Championships at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, was the talk of town. The athlete faced major challenges in answering questions during an interview with a foreign journalist. His incoherent speech in English was what attracted the attention of athletics fans.

The female journalist started the interview thus: “I am here with bronze medallist Dominic Ndigiti.” And then she asked: “You made history in winning the first medal for Kenya today. How do you feel?”

Ndigiti responded: “Am very fine because I was training very hard, and that is my target is gold, but it is sorry for Kenyan people.”

The journalist posed a second question. She asked: “Kenyans will be proud of you all the same. How tough was it?”

The race walker answered: “The walk was very tough because I was only in Kenya the athletic who was participating in that event, and I was like a mono, and that is why my competitors from China was two people (in number). …….. I hope that it is my mind.”

The final question was, “What motivates you then?

Ndigiti replied: “Motivating is the prepared to be Olympic Tokyo in Japan (2020). I proud to be participating in that event.”

The interview illustrated how the command in the English would spark ridicule especially among social media users.

Mixed reactions

It elicited mixed reactions, with a section of sports enthusiasts making fun of the athlete while others criticised the journalist for not finding a Kiswahili translator when she discovered Ndigiti had difficulties expressing himself in English.

Another section of athletics fans opined that the athlete should have insisted on speaking in Kiswahili or his mother tongue.

In January 2022, Feiswal Bamkuu, a budding Kenyan footballer, who joined French third tier side La Berrichonne de Châteauroux chose to speak in Swahili during his unveiling.

In the interview, he is heard thanking Umra Omar who facilitated his travel to France, and also vowing to work hard to impress upon the coaches.

La Berrichonne de Châteauroux, commonly referred to as La Berrichonne or simply Châteauroux, is a football club based in Châteauroux.

English communication goofs have also happened during major global races, when athletes are carrying the country’s flag.

At the 2013 Glasgow World Championships, Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich who had bagged the world marathon title displayed a not-so-good command of English during the post-race media interview.

A Standard Group sports writer, who was among journalists covering the World Championships which was staged in Russia engaged him in the Kalenjin language, and Kiprotich opened up with a big smile to the surprise of the international media.


There are, however, a number of Kenyan athletes who have mastered both English and Kiswahili and when the time for media interviews comes, they speak their minds with clarity and coherence.

For instance, marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, who will be celebrating 20 years of professional racing next year, attributes his good command of the English language to reading books.

“My interest really started after reading some short stories in 2005. I enjoyed what I learned from reading books and decided that I should spend more time in training camp reading books rather than watching TV,” Kipchoge told World Athletics in October 2019.

Three-time 1500m World Champion Asbel Kiprop also attributes his command in the international language to wide reading and practice.

Kiprop says his reading culture has inspired him to consider writing a book before he hangs his boots.

Top athletes such as former 800m World Champion Janeth Jepkosgei, who is currently a coach and Javelin star Julius Yego, who graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Policy and Administration from Kenyatta University last year, have also displayed impressive speeches at the global stage.

School systems

Sports expert Dr Byron Kipchumba says the issue is not about the language that an athlete is proficient in, claiming the Kenyan education system condemns sports talents at young ages.

According to Kipchumba, athletics coaches focus on performance and place emphasis on communication skills among their athletes.

“We need a holistic approach to coaching. We need athletes who can articulate issues well because communication is a marketing tool for athletes. Without good communication skills, an athlete can’t build their image and it becomes difficult to get endorsements,” the former sports lecturer explains.

He says an athlete such as Kipchoge and 800m record holder David Rudisha display loftier communication skills due to quality coaching.

“The media has not been asking the coaches and managers hard questions. Coaches and managers should be telling us why their athletes are not good communicators,” he adds.

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