Last Sunday, the unthinkable happened. Uganda's Stephen Kiprotich beat Kenya's Wilson Kipsang and Abel Kirui to win the marathon gold medal at the conclusion of the 30th Olympiad in London. This loss by Kenya to Uganda in a race that has been Kenya's preserve for more than 20 years now was so unbelievable, it looked like lack of patriotism by our marathoners!
Not that Uganda is a lesser country than Kenya. No way! As a person, I've adored Uganda's beauty long before I set foot in that country. As children, we read about Uganda's beauty and its abundance of food. In fact, some of the story books we read as young people claimed some of the most beautiful women in the world came from Uganda! When I finally set foot in that country in the mid 1990s, I found all the things I had been told about Uganda to be so true ... and more!
But some things are simply not right. If Uganda had beaten Kenya in a soccer match or boxing, that would probably be as it should be. After all, Uganda gave East Africa such soccer greats like Issa Sekatawa and Godffrey Katerega, and boxing greats like Eridadi Mukwanga, Leo Rwabogo and John 'The Beast' Mugabi.
But athletics, particularly long distance running, is a Kenyan preserve. In fact, for almost 20 years now, Kenyan marathoners have won virtually every major marathon in the world. In all those 'circuits', the only thing conspicuous about Uganda has been a near absolute lack of presence. I watched the race from start to finish.
The site of Kiprotich nonchalantly grabbing the Ugandan flag just before he crossed the finish line to claim his gold medal was so depressing for me, I could not even accept it as a bad dream! Because, a Ugandan beating a Kenyan in an Olympic marathon to claim the gold medal must be considered an abominable national shame!! This is why.
Kenya took part in the Olympics for the first time in 1968 in Mexico City. In the 40-year period between those games and the Beijing Olympics of 2008, Kenya had amassed a total of 74 medals comprising 23 gold, 28 silver and 23 bronze. In the same period, the whole of East Africa (including Rwanda and Burundi) got a total of 83 medals; (Kenya - 74; Uganda - 6: Tanzania - 2; Burundi - 1; and Rwanda - Nil).
Thus Kenya's medal tally has amounted to nearly 90 per cent of all medals won by all the five countries of East Africa. And all the 25 gold medals won by East Africans in the entire period came from Kenya except two (by John Akii-Bua of Uganda 400m hurdles in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, and Venuste Niyongabo of Burundi in 5000m in the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia).
Kenya's gold medal tally has accounted for 92 per cent of all the gold medals brought to East Africa since 1968! With statistics such as these, it can be safely said Kenyans are born to run, while the rest of East Africans are born to watch and cheer! That is why no explanation can be good enough to justify Uganda beating Kenya in a marathon at (of all tournaments!) the Olympic games!
So, why is Kenya losing its lustre in athletics? There could be many reasons, but a few obvious ones readily come to mind. For starters, the minders of athletics in Kenya seem to have over-stayed their usefulness. There are a number of officials at both Athletics Kenya (AK) and National Olympics Committee of Kenya (NOCK) who have been around for over two decades.
It is time Kenya took a critical look at the leaderships in both AK and NOCK. Difficult questions must now be asked, top among them being: isn't it time fresh blood was infused into these organisations? Indeed, isn't the time right for total shake-up of AK and NOCK? The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, in its current leadership, has also fallen far short of expectations. In fact, one often wonders where this ministry's priorities lie. For instance, in November 2010, David Rudisha became the first Kenyan to win the very unique, coveted and highly prestigious IAAF Athlete of the Year award.
When I turned up at JKIA with the small group that went out to receive this great son of Kenya back to our country, I noticed both the minister and the PS were not in the crowd. When I asked the few officials from the ministry why they were not around, the answer I got suggested they may not have been aware Rudisha had won the IAAF Athlete of the Year award!
Then there is the Sports Bill which has been sitting at the drawers of the ministry headquarters for nearly five years now. The reluctance to bring this bill to parliament makes it look like it is a tougher task than launching a military rocket into space!
It has also been suggested our top athletes spend too much time, and participate in too many professional leagues. That may be so, but what choices do the Kenyan leadership give these athletes? Kenya is a country which shows little or no respect for her true heroes. Our athletes hardly ever make it to the list of honours made out every year.
Indeed, the fate of some of our retired athletes makes for very depressing reading. Nothing illustrates this more than the stories of Naftali Temu (a Kenyan) and John Akii-Bua (a Ugandan). Both were pioneer Olympic gold medallists for their countries. Temu won Kenya's first Olympic gold medal in 10,000 metres in Mexico City in 1968.
To date, he remains the only Kenyan to have won an Olympic gold medal in this race. John Akii-Bua, on the other hand, won Uganda's first Olympic gold medal in the 400m hurdles at the Munich Olympics of 1972. Temu fell ill in the early part of this century.
Unable to get the less than Sh100,000 he needed for treatment, he was admitted at a general ward at the Kenyatta National Hospital where he died in early 2003, a nameless, faceless Kenyan driven to an early grave by squalor. If there was a notable government official at his burial, it was probably the area chief! John Akii-Bua, who lived as a Ugandan hero after winning the Olympic gold medal, died in 1997.
He was accorded a state funeral and his burial in Lira was attended by no less a person than the then Ugandan Prime Minister, Kintu Musoke. Our athletes know these things, and the question for them always is: Should I do my patriotic duty and die like Temu, or burn out in the Diamond Leagues and secure my old age?
Unfortunately, Kenya's decline in athletics seems to be following a familiar pattern for our country in recent times. The invasion of Migingo by Ugandan forces only drew vague responses and reactions from Kenya's leadership. In fact, the unspoken position of top officialdom in Kenya seemed to be that Migingo was a Nyanza problem which did not warrant national attention.
Several ministers made this aptly clear both in and out of Parliament. After years of endless diplomatic and political ambivalence from Nairobi, Uganda's forces still occupy Migingo, where they routinely tax Kenyans heavily for services rendered by the same Kenyans! Then there was the question of the leadership in East African Cooperation secretariat early last year.
While everyone knows Francis Muthaura's tenure had largely been in a caretaker capacity, served for most time before the protocol was signed, Kenya feebly retreated and ceded its claim to the secretary general's position to Rwanda at the end of Juma Mwapachu's term in April last year.
Mediation fiascos in the rest of Africa in the recent past have also made Kenya look like a greenhorn, a minion, and indeed a clown at a time when Uganda's and Rwanda's diplomatic clouts have been rising in the continent. When senior ministers in Kenya attacked the Prime Minister Raila Odinga's diplomatic and mediation roles in Cote d'Ivoire early last year, Kenya scored another dubious first: it became the first country in Africa to publicly attack its national when cast in an international diplomatic role!
Economically, we are no better either. While Kenya still remains the largest economy in East Africa, statistics show that, compared to 10 years ago, our neighbours, particularly Tanzania, are catching up on us fast. If that trend continues, Kenya may not remain the largest economy in East Africa for long.
Our diminished role in East Africa, whether in sports, politics, diplomacy or economics, should be a major cause for concern for the country's leadership, calling for total re-engineering of our ways of doing things. Because, Kenya must decide whether it wants to set the agenda for this region, or it merely wants to be an inconsequential pawn and bystander in a region where emerging Kings (and Queens!) seem to be keen on a redefinition of the fast-expanding chessboard called East Africa.
The writer is the MP for Rarieda.