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Era of glamorous and eloquent athletes; Kenyan athletes no longer the butt of social media jokes

By Jonathan Komen in Glasgow | August 6th 2014
Sprinters Millicent Ndoro and hummer thrower Linda Oseso (right) at Kasarani stadium before leaving for Commonweath Games in Glasgow, Scotland.[PHOTO/DENNIS OKEYO]

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND: When the foreign media interviewed Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich after he bagged the 2013 IAAF World Championships marathon gold in Moscow, Russia, the Ugandan failed one big test: His poor command of the English language meant he could not respond to the questions asked.

Knowing he spoke my mother tongue, I engaged him in Kalenjin and Kiprotich opened up with a grin, to the surprise of the international media, who scrambled to my side to get the story right. But Kiprotich’s problem with English is not unique as many Kenyan athletes have faced this challenge over the years, with most of them dodging Press interviews and avoiding invitations to sports talk shows on TV.

However, the script was different at the just-ended Commonwealth Games, which brought together 71 English-speaking nations.

The 195-member Kenyan squad in Glasgow, Scotland, which harvested 25 medals at the end of the competition last Sunday, depicted a sudden departure from the shy and laid back mien that has haunted Kenyan athletes for years. The team had a number of professionals who have graduated from both Kenyan and foreign universities.

Journalists working for broadcast, print and even digital platforms congregated around desks where Kenyan media was stationed; all looking for crucial information about the Kenyan superstars.

It was, however, a pleasant surprise for the international journalists when they interviewed a group of Kenyan athletes who clearly articulated their take on the sports meet.

Farayi Mungazi, a BBC radio reporter, was surprised when he interviewed Julius Yego, the Kenyan athletics team captain.

“He speaks good English. I have had problems interviewing Kenyan athletes in the past, but they are picking on well. That’s a fantastic step,” said Farayi.

Peter Angwenyi, the media attaché for the Kenyan team, concurs with Farayi.

“The international Press was impressed by the improved communication skills and literacy levels of Kenyan athletes. Most of those I have secured interviews for say it’s a great improvement. The youth and junior programmes have helped expose our runners at an early age,” said Angwenyi, who served as public relations officer for Athletics Kenya between 2004 and last year.

Linda Oseso, who made it to the finals in the hammer throw event, is a graduate from the US and her fluency in  English, albeit with an American accent, was a strong case that indeed Kenyans are now matching their star performance on the field with eloquence.

“The Kenyan athlete has evolved. We are in a new age and people should stop thinking that we are not educated,” said Oseso.

Some Kenyan athletes went to the US on track scholarships three decades ago, which required good academic qualifications in their O’ level exams. They conquered major races and returned home to exhibit their exemplary managerial skills.

They include Ibrahim Hussein, the first black man to win the New York City Marathon and Patrick Sang, who won the 1992 Olympic 3,000m steeplechase silver medal in Barcelona.

Still, there are some athletes who prefer to compete full time; make money and go back to class after retiring from active running.

Felix Limo, the two-time London Marathon winner (2006 and 2007), retired from athletics last year, at 32 years, and enrolled in Egerton University to study veterinary medicine.

“I loved the course and as I competed full time, I knew at some point I was going to study to attain my career dream. Education helps a lot, especially in managing your earnings from athletics,” he said.

Leah Malot, the 1987 All Africa 10,000m champion, also retired last year and joined Moi University for a bachelor’s degree in Commerce. “I was motivated by my husband Simon Ruto, who teaches at the Rift Valley Training Institute in Eldoret,” said Malot, 42.

Eliud Kipchoge, the 2008 Olympic 5,000m silver medallist, decided to pursue a course in human resource management through distance learning at Aphax College in Eldoret, as the athletics schedule could not allow him enough time for full-time study.

“I asked the college for distance learning and simply studied from my house. I could train, have a rest and study at night,” he said.

While he longs to study more, Kipchoge suggests that Moi University’s newly-introduced sports management programme ought to be tailored for correspondence learning to allow active sports personalities enrol.

“It is a good course for us (athletes). But we cannot manage full-time while still actively running,” he said.

Stephen Chemlany, who teamed up with defending champion John Kelai Ekiru and Eric Ndiema in the marathon during Commonwealth Games, was Kenya’s most educated athlete in the Glasgow squad.

Chemlany has a master’s degree in computer science from Iona University in New Rochelle, New York.

“I have tried to make it to the national team several times without success. I prepared well for the big battle,” said Chemlany, who won a silver medal in the marathon.

The alumnus of Kakamega High School, who basks in a personal best of 2:07:55 in the Berlin Marathon, said: “There is no better way to walk smart than to have a good education. As a young boy, I admired athletes and imagined how good it would look to speak eloquently during interviews.”

He is married to fellow athlete Emily Chelanga and the couple have an eight-year-old daughter, Faith Chepchumba.

The university students on the Kenya team included Florence Wasike in 400m (Mt Kenya University), Jecinta Shikanda (Egerton University) and Collins Omae (Kenya Methodist University).

Omae is a member of Speedstars Athletics and was the university champion in 2012 and 2013 in 200m and 400m before winning this year’s national 200m national championships in Nairobi.

Shikanda, a police officer based at Jogoo Road Police Station in Nairobi, is studying criminology at Egerton University.

“The course is helping me grow professionally. I enrolled knowing it would help me discharge my duties well as a police officer. I will invite my colleagues and fellow athletes for my graduation,” said Shikanda.

Rugby Sevens centre man Humprey Khayange attended Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), where his rugby passion began to radiate.

Flanker Collins Injera, who is Khayange’s brother, is a communications and public relations graduate from Daystar University.

And boxer Nickson Otieno Abaka is a student at University of Eldoret while his team mate Charles Odhiambo is a graduate of Kenyatta University.

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