Tarnished Glory: Kenya’s Sporting Nightmare

Tarnished Glory: Kenya’s Sporting Nightmare

Kenyan athlete's managed to win a record number of medals at Rio 2016 despite a complete breakdown at the administrative level.

For two years between 2013 and 2015, artists Wambui Kamiru-Collymore and Xavier Verhoest criss-crossed Kenya in search of perspectives on national identity in a country still smarting from the wounds of two highly divisive and violent elections. The resulting project “Who I am, Who We Are” contains testimony from Kenyans on various backgrounds on what makes them feel included and excluded from the national identity, in both prose and art*. One of the critical chapters in the resulting text includes observations on what makes the identity “Kenyan” includes the observation:

“Kenyan unity is primarily evident during extremes in times of extreme desperation [terrorist attacks] or in times of extreme success (e.g. sporting events)… bringing about a sense of we over a sense of I. When the national anthem is played in moments like this, it increases a feeling of pride in being Kenyan”.

Yes, for Kenyans of all backgrounds events like the Olympics are not just about medal tallies. It’s about a rare reprieve from fractured politics and economic uncertainty, and the faint hope that maybe a unified polity is possible. It’s about forgetting tribalism, class divisions, gender biases, religious chauvinism and other cleavages that complicate life in one of the world’s more diverse countries. For a country created as an afterthought in the colonial project and riddled by resulting historical paradoxes, sports is the primary way through which the concept of “Kenyan” is defined.

All of which makes the debacle of Kenya’s preparation for and attendance at the 2016 Olympics more than merely shameful. By risking the performance of athletes at the event, staff at the Ministry of Sports and Culture and the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (NOCK) have thumbed their nose at the very fibre of the country’s fragile national identity.

Tarnished Glory

The debacle began long before the actual event, when the Sports ministry and the National Assembly delayed the passage of a WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) required anti-doping bill, for reasons still unclear. Until May 27—less than 10 weeks to the games—it looked like Kenyan athletes would be banned from Rio. In addition, it emerged that many of the athletes declined to train at the designated facility in Kaptagat, feeling like it was too isolated and the conditions too spartan to bring out the best in them. According to local reports, most athletes went ahead and made separate arrangements, showing up to the Kaptagat facility on the last day to nominally be marked present.

Nor were the issues restricted to track and field. In swimming, where Kenya has in recent years made headway, there were issues with team selections. The team substituted two swimmers days before the team’s departure for Rio because those who named to the squad had not performed as well as the two rejected swimmers during qualifying. Only a public outcry on social media led to the reinstatement of the two frustrated swimmers, but one can speculate that this had an impact on morale. Similarly, the women’s rugby sevens team, which had an unexpected path to qualification, struggled to raise money to support specialised training before the event.

Then there was the issue of the sports kit. In March 2016, there was the scandal of sponsorship fees paid by Nike to facilitate especially poor runners at the Olympics. None of this money made it to the athletes. Furthermore, according to Nike, the official apparel provider for the Kenyan team, five sets of kit were supplied to each member of the Olympic team. According to the athletes, they each only received two – one for training and one for the actual race. The result? Team Kenya walking out during the opening ceremony in mismatched “national uniforms.”

All of which would probably have kept athletes in more affluent countries home, but in Kenya it seemed that organising officials themselves were determined to make that happen. While several officials and their partners allegedly flew to Rio on the government’s dime, many athletes paid their own way to Rio and some nearly missed out on the games altogether. Star javelin thrower Julius Yego, a.k.a. Mr You Tube for teaching himself to throw the javelin using YouTube videos, tweeted the day before the Olympics that he was still in Nairobi as his official ticket went missing. Eliud Kipchoge, marathon gold medallist who can be credited for the massive, international tide of affection for the Kenya national anthem on social media, paid for his own return fare to Nairobi.

Former Boston Marathon Champion and Member of Parliament Wesley Korir catalogued the litany of frustrations of the many athletes who opted for the cheap tickets provided by the government—including women’s 800m bronze medallist Margaret Wambui Nyairiera—who were forced to stay in what looks like the more dangerous parts of Rio. Sports drinks were missing and bungled, and it seems that the iconic image from Team Kenya at the 2016 Rio Olympics will be of eventual Marathon champion Kipchoge running past a race checkpoint, gesturing for his missing drink.

Will Kenyan Sports Survive Hassan Wario?

Cabinet Secretary for Sport Hassan Wario has tried to reassure Kenyans that this set of events are peculiar to the Olympics, disbanding NOCK an promising swift action against those he fingers as the culprits. But the problems facing Kenyan sports in recent years are bigger than NOCK. In November 2015, the Harambee Stars, the national football team left for a qualifying match against Cape Verde under the cloud of unpaid allowances and shoddy transportation arrangements that resulted in their using such a small plane that they had to stop in Nigeria to refuel.

The women’s team, the Harambee Starlets, were the feature of an anti-corruption expose that showed that Ministry officials allegedly collected and had their passports stamped as if they had travelled to Tanzania for a qualifying match when in fact none of the team travelled. One presumes that allowances for the team were pocketed by Ministry officials. Similarly, in April 2016, the under 20 Men’s team was disqualified from the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers for age cheating.

And the list goes on and on, with sports outside athletics suffering the brunt. Lack of funding led to the withdrawal of the Malkia Strikers – the national women’s volleyball team – from Rio qualifiers, until the international governing board FIVB intervened on their behalf. The women’s rugby sevens team that received an unexpected qualification spot also received a lifeline from the international governing body when it looked like they would be unable to afford more specialised training. So too the country’s sole pentathlete – who was self-funded - and sole women’s rowing hope – who missed the games altogether. Every month for the last 8 months a new scandal has threatened a new Kenyan sports federation, and what we have seen in the last two weeks is only the tip of a very rotten iceberg.

The common denominator in all of this is the Ministry for Sports and Culture, led by CS Wario, a ministry that has demonstrated complete lack of direction. Each of these sports is administered by a separate governing body so it’s not enough to focus on “corruption” as a culprit. We must also look to how the common denominator makes such corruption possible. The fact is corruption is more common than not in sports – recall the FIFA scandal of last year – and other countries still manage to not flounder at such absurd levels. What makes the Kenyan case particularly egregious is that nothing seems sacred, not even the hopes and dreams of the millions of Kenyans who look on this two-week event as a moment to forget the things that divide them.

Team Kenya’s stellar performance at Rio suggests that survival is possible but a dramatic intervention is necessary. Indeed, it is a testament to and a perfect allegory for the resilience that keeps Kenya ticking, where the most frustrating thing about Kenya is not that it is terrible but that it should be great. Kenya still returned with the highest medal tally in Africa, and the second highest in the world for athletics. But what if Julius Yego, favourite for the javelin gold, had travelled peacefully to Rio? Would he have had to pull out in the finals and settle for silver? Would the YouTube man be on his way to more endorsements and possibly a movie that Kenyan kids could watch and hope for themselves?

Kenya’s Ministry of Sports is squandering more than just the country’s national image. They are trifling with years of effort and sacrifice by the country’s athletes, many of whom come from poor backgrounds and rely on sports as a way out. More than that, they are messing with the fragile seams of a damaged nation, the few moments that 48 million people rely on for a sense of belonging and inclusivity. This is deserves decisive action at the highest levels, which unfortunately, if the past is any indicator is highly unlikely.

*Disclaimer, the writer did some editing for the Who I am, Who We Are project

Nanjala Nyabola is a writer and political analyst currently based in Nairobi, Kenya. Follow her on Twitter @nanjala1.