Kenya’s Olympic Journey: 2012

Kenya’s curse of abundant talent

Team Kenya’s performance at the 2012 Olympics was disappointing. Two gold medals from a controversy laden camp full of joy-riders is a story we would like to forget fast. Before we press ‘delete’- Kenyatta Otieno takes a look at a blessing that may be turning into our curse in athletics.

When Ugandan Stephen Kiprotich ran away with the Marathon gold medal on the last day of 2012 Olympics, Kenyans were torn. Part of us wanted to be happy for our neighbours in the spirit of East African Cooperation for hearing their national anthem sang at the Olympics after 40 years. Then we were disappointed by our athletes’ failure to redeem the poor show at the last minute.

Forget our government officials surpassing our athletes in numbers and perks. Ignore the synchronized drinking and s-tipple chase that the officials took to in London. These may have contributed to the dismal performance but they are evidence of complacent attitude.

This is one Olympics the National Olympics Council of Kenya- NOCK will want to forget very fast. Before it is archived, I beg them to look at it with a clinical lens. The mistakes need to be owned and solutions sought, not as a punitive measure but more for progressive restitution.

The fall of the best

As Olympics progressed, FIFA released the World Football rankings and as usual Kenya dropped. The screaming fact was Brazil at position thirteen. It is not news when Kenya is below position one hundred but for Brazil to miss a top ten position, is hot cake of news.

That is where Kenya finds itself when we lose in middle and long distance races. Like Brazil in football, we never lack athletics talent; we have never been bothered about it since Kipchoge Keino won gold at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

When Kaka (Ricardo) dips in form at Real Madrid and Ronaldinho drops at AC Milan to end up in Flemingo, it is no big deal for Brazil. Neymar and Oscar will rise to replace them, and Brazil opens a new phase in their national team seamlessly.

When Paul Tergat slowly went out of the marathon scene and Haile Gabrselasie broke his marathon record. It did not take long before the late Samuel Wanjiru won the Beijing Olympic gold and Patrick Makau snatched the record from King Haile.

We failed to shine on the tracks save for a good show from David Rudisha, Ezekiel Kemboi and “You Tube” javelin man Julius Yego. Brazil did much better in Olympic football but fell to Mexico in the finals, another anti-climax to a gifted side failing when it matters.

The curse of the gifted

Like Brazil, we are suffering from the curse of the gifted, prone to talented individuals but herein evident in a nation. Exceptional talent has become the rope with which many people have hanged themselves. It is the route to the gate of no return, but the few who return end up as a pale shadow of their former selves, reminiscing more of the good old days.

For a country to be able to produce many exceptional talents, any of which could make for a great career; having an abundance of choices is “both a blessing and a curse.” It either makes one complacent or prone to self destructive tendencies, the former applies to national teams more so the officials.

Sadananad Vishwanath or simply Sada was an emerging gem of talent in Indian Cricket. In recent press interviews he looked back on his life with a certain calm resignation. “Fame is heady,” he said. “It is so sudden, it catches you unprepared. It is intoxicating; it gets to your head and messes with it.”

The fame and status that comes with winning may have gone into the head of NOCK as an organization and the officials as well. Like Sada, they got intoxicated by the fact that individual athletes train well and always win. The national trials have even been dabbed “world championships”- a tag which has led to complacency.

The winning works in two ways, it covers the complacency and mediocrity by blinding the public. Then the public basks in the glory our athletes bring without questioning. When we perform dismally, it exposes our officials’ lack of seriousness; we all know it is not about talent or the lack of it.

The scaffolding of greed

The tussle between athletes, Athletics Kenya and NOCK on the pre- Olympic Bristol Camp should have sounded alarm bells to the government. Ezekiel Kemboi went off to Bristol and flew back to train at Kasarani. There must have been more to this Bristol business than we got to hear. 

The fact is, by taking the athletes early, the officials were entitled to a KSH. 24,000 per day allowance. The camp was a good idea not to the team’s performance but for the officials pocket and desire for all paid for ‘holiday.’

Nike- the official Team Kenya kit suppliers experienced the Kenyan greed first hand. Athletes demonstrated to their London offices and they had to provide extra kits. The 200 kits supplied ended up with officials before the athletes, I wonder how they fit in them with their pot-bellies. Nike said the kits did not cover officials.

David Danford bought his own swimming kit and David Rudisha’s medal award ceremony had to be delayed as a ceremonial kit was sought. If Rudisha as captain did not get a ceremonial kit, then who did the officials expect to win a gold medal? If tribalism, nepotism and impunity are a threat to our nationhood, someone needs to save us from our greed. Greed is the scaffolding that we will hang on as a society.

We will still reign

We have not seen the last of Brazil and so we have not seen the last of Kenya yet. Nature has endowed us with the ability to produce runners with little or no organized effort. The way of life for children in the Rift Valley coupled with the prevailing environment works for us. No one can take this from us, not Ethiopians, Ugandans or even our greedy officials.

Ethiopia will specialize; there will be (Abebe) Bikila, (Deratu) Tulu, King Haile, then (Kenenisa) Bekele, successively. They always have one reigning athlete at a time; it is now (Tirunesh) Dibaba. Somalia born Mo Farah’s double win for Britain in 10,000 and 5,000 metres does not mean much, I doubt if Britain will import another top talent soon.

Kenya on the other hand can produce several top athletes at a time. This is the reason why I believe we will still rule the tracks for a long time to come. The other countries will capitalize on breaking the run of our specific athletes, but it will be temporary. 

This does not mean we relax, who knows- just as Spain has broken Brazil’s reign in World Football, someone could be plotting to end our reign in athletics. Let us learn from our mistakes in London and take our athletics seriously. Natural gifting is only a blessing to the wise, on the contrary it may just be a curse that brings gloom.


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