BY DAVID ONJILI
It is not in me to hog another’s parade. In the month of July, Kenya ‘successfully’ hosted the World U18 Athletics Championships, immediately President Uhuru Kenyatta scrapped entry charges, resulting in a surge in spectator numbers and record crowds.
Kenyans and their government are happy, and rightly so. A crowd of 55, 000 for a sporting event is no mean fete, especially in a developing country. But there in lies the real problem that faces local sports. From football to athletics to boxing to rugby to motor sports, our competitive edge as a nation is on a downward spiral. Fans are giving sporting events a wide berth because of the bad publicity and corruption. This has resulted in us not according our sportsmen the honour we do to our politicians. Our sporting teams are no longer participating in continental or world competitions and even when we do, we are so mediocre and mere participants, so when did the rain start beating us?
The Kenya rugby 7s is by far the most successful team sport in Kenya in the last few years with their crowing moment coming in 2016 when they won the Singapore series of the circuit by beating Fiji 30 points to 7. A great feat for a generation of talented boys like Collins Injera, Humphrey Kayange, Andrew Amonde and Billy Odhiambo who have been worthy ambassadors of the sport, even more so, with a local coach, Benjamin Ayimba.
This win notwithstanding, the team has constantly put in mediocre performances that have led to fears that they might be relegated from the 15 teams that make the core. Japan have been relegated and replaced by Spain in the 2017 circuit and Kenya could be next if they continue to register below par performances.
While New Zealand has won the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series a record 12 times and our African compatriots South Africa have done so 2 times, Kenya has never. In fact we have only made it to the last 6 in the competition two times, perfectly defining what it means by being mere participants – we just make up the numbers and entertain fans in stadia with dances but get a pounding when the whistle is blown for the games to begin.
The disorganization at the Rugby Union has not helped either. Poor player transition has been evident and this points to non-visionary planning. The elderly generation of Injera has not seamlessly paved way for a new one and we are in the spell of hiring and firing coaches rather than giving them time to inspire a philosophy.
The story of Kenya boxing is another sad tale, a nation that once boasted talents like Robert Napunyi Wangila, the first African to win a Gold Medal at the Olympics in Seoul Korea in 1988. At the same tournament, Christopher Ochieng Sande too won bronze in the middleweight category. Kenya’s dominance in the sport would continue when in 1982, 1990 and 1994 the nation was the Commonwealth champion, an epoch that saw the likes of George ‘Foreman’ Odhiambo and Joseph Akhasamba win gold in heavyweight and light heavyweight matches respectively at the 1990 commonwealth games. An era of dominance on the continent and the world stage was being witnessed. Companies took pride in the sport too, Kenya Breweries, Posta, Railways, Kenya Police, Armed Forces and Prisons all employed boxers and when they brought medals to the country it was double joy as their employers would have the bragging rights as being the producers and home of talent in the sport.
Today, Kenyan boxing, like many other sports is a shell of its former self. Famed female boxer Conjestina Achieng is a neglected figure in her ancestral home, after flying the national flag at world tournaments. Today she is alone and in a bad mental state with only well wishers occasionally remembering her. A boxer is now paid as little as Sh2, 000 for a professional match, the amount of corruption is huge. Match referees are heavily compromised and it is rumored that you can know who is going to win a boxing match by simply looking at the referee. We are not a boxing powerhouse anymore, not just in Africa but we have lost our stature in the world too.
A sport that once brought honour like during the 1987 All Africa Games that was held on home soil where, at Kenyatta International Conference Centre and before the then cabinet minister, Robert Ouko (now late), Kenya’s Hit Squad won all the available eight Gold Medals as crowd went wild. David Kamau (light welterweight), Stephen Mwema (bantamweight), Patrick ‘mont’ Waweru (featherweight), Maurice Maina (light flyweight), Mohammed Orungi, Robert Napunyi Wangila (light welterweight) and Chris Odera (super heavyweight) were then men with the unprecedented feat.
While boxing boasted highly competitive national league that had referees of high integrity, and companies would employ the boxers because it was a matter of company pride to have boxers work for you, the same cannot be said today. Social Halls in major towns like Nairobi and Kisumu that were the breeding and nurturing grounds have all been neglected and even when our boxers qualify for continental games, lack of financial support from the government ensures that they are either poorly prepared to participate or do not even travel.
Sports in Kenya is going down, administrators and club patrons are using it as a stepping stone to politics. Many who aspire to run and head our sports do not view it as a business model that can not only create jobs but also used to market our country as a hub for talent. Everton Football Club that boasts world stars like Ashley Williams and Wayne Rooney chose to visit Tanzania and not us, Brazil national soccer team was once hosted by Tanzania for friendlies.
Our national women’s volleyball team is losing their edge to our North African rivals like Egypt and Algeria. Qualification to continental tournaments is no longer a guarantee; successive governments too have not helped. The success of football, rugby and boxing in the 1980s was because there were adequate facilities. Companies like Kenya Railways, Kenya Breweries and Kenya Posta and Telecommunication had sports facilities like football pitches, basketball courts and indoor halls for boxing. There were Town Halls that also supplemented indoor sports like table tennis. All this is lost.
The available clubs where young men and women can engage in sports charge high membership fees that discourage many ordinary Kenyans. Sports facilities like Nairobi City Stadium have poor playing surfaces that show the lack of interest and neglect that most leaders have for sports.
Governor Ali Hassan Joho of Mombasa to the contrary is a bright spot; he has commissioned two football pitches with impeccable artificial playing surface. The same is now being replicated by Governor Joseph Kabogo of Kiambu County. This is a good sign and more county governments should emulate. A generation of many talented boys and girls are going to waste because of lack of facilities, which forces them to engage in crime and drug abuse.
If the current crop of leaders has an iota of care for sports, then it must be shown by their engagement with sports fraternity to bring up more sporting facilities, support existing sports financially and treat our sports heroes with the dignity and respect they deserve. It is never too late to do the right thing, let us start now.