13 March 2019

Kenya: Olympic Ice Hockey Dreams Under the African Sun

Kenya is known for its fast runners, but that could change if you ask its ice hockey team. The Ice Lions are training hard in the sun to be the first team in East and Central Africa to qualify for the Winter Olympics.

In Kenya's capital Nairobi, the Ice Lions are determined to beat all odds and qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The team is training at the only ice rink in East Africa under the guidance of veteran Canadian hockey player Tim Colby.

They have been playing international friendly matches against seasoned players from six countries among them Russia, Canada and the United States.

Benjamin Mburu has played ice hockey for nearly four years. He started out as a roller skater and then got into street hockey. As he developed his skills an ice hockey player asked him to join them for a game -- and he was hooked. That was in 2015.

"I really enjoyed the ice, so I automatically joined," he said. He already knew how to skate, but he says it was challenging, because he had to adapt to the ice and learn how to maneuver.

Help from seasoned Canadian players

Since then he's made it as far as Toronto, Canada to compete against others. "It was back in August 2018. We interacted with a few players. They gave us some few pointers. We also got to meet Canadians, who are very good at it and they also gave us some tips."

Faith Sihoho, 26, is one of the female ice hockey players. "I started playing hockey at the age of 23. Friends told me that I can come and join them. That's how I started playing ice hockey."

Robert Opiyo has been playing ice hockey since 2007 and is one of the Ice Lion's most senior players. He says the sport has come a long way since it first started a few years ago.

"We have seen a rise of people generating interest in it. We are trying to focus on the youth, the younger generation, because for us seniors, we wouldn't be around for too long. They are the ones who are going to carry this flag," he told DW.

Gearing up for the next Winter Olympics

Opiyo believes ice hockey is slowly gaining traction and hopes the sport will become even more popular in the next few years as they are gearing up for the 2022 Winter Olympics. "We are doing our best to be able to make it to those games. We have seen a rise of people generating interest in it. We are trying to focus on the youth, the younger generation because for us seniors, we won't be around for too long. They are the ones who are going to carry this flag," he said.

Although ice hockey is still rather new to Kenya, Coach Tim Colby believes the players have potential to get to the top.

"They are fast and in a great shape, so they should be playing game based on speed," he told DW. "The biggest challenge right now is equipment and things such as a skate sharpening machine which you just can't buy here. Once we get the equipment set up, then it is making sure that this is sustainable."

That also includes training Kenyans. "We want to make sure Kenyans are trained as coaches themselves so they own the game, they develop the game in a Kenyan way for them," Colby added.

Opiyo said that the team was self-funded and that from time to time, they get donations from donors. "So far, the government has not given us funds. For now, we don't have sponsors. However, a Chinese e-commerce company called Ali Baba and a Canadian coffee company known as Tim Hortons, have pledged to support the team in the days to come," he told DW.

However, Opiyo gave no information on the support the team expects to get from the Chinese and Canadian companies.

Ice hockey is played in at least five other African countries mainly in the north such as Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and South Africa. So far, South Africa is number one on the continent, but Kenya's Ice Lions are working hard to change that.

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