Kipchoge Keino: Olympic legend’s free fall after illustrious career
- None of the 20 federations affiliated to the National Olympic Committee of Kenya proposed the outgoing president for re-election despite his willingness to serve. How louder can a message of rejection get?
- Life at the top of sports leadership resembles life in big government.
Actions speak louder than words but some actions are louder than a ship’s horn. Think about this: none of the 20 federations affiliated to the National Olympic Committee of Kenya proposed outgoing President Kipchoge Keino for re-election despite his willingness to serve.
The question of seconding him therefore did not arise. How louder can a message of rejection get? But surely, did it have to come to this?
My mind is assailed by so many questions. In general terms, is it possible that as leader you can be so isolated at the top, living in a reality perceived only by yourself so that the resounding rejection, when it comes, takes you completely by surprise and elicits hard feelings?
Is it possible that you can run a system that has no warning signals? Is it possible that you can become so impervious to honest criticism that all you do is see and hear only the good in yourself? Is it possible to see public office as yours by right and to sincerely believe that people are lucky to have you as their president?
Apparently, yes you can.
International Olympic Committee member Paul Tergat unveils his ‘team’ in Nairobi on April 4, 2017 after officially announcing his candidature for the position of President at next month’s National Olympic Committee of Kenya elections. PHOTO | CHRIS OMOLLO |NATION MEDIA GROUP
Life at the top of sports leadership resembles life in big government. You study the boss’s face and decide what you believe he wants to hear. Then, affecting a manner that suggests you are ready to swoon over his feet, you control your breathe and select your words with uttermost care.
Legendary runner and National Olympic Committee of Kenya chairman Kipchoge Keino presents the Queen’s Baton to President Kenyatta at State House, Mombasa as Sharad Rao, Legal Adviser to the Commonwealth Games Federation, looks on on January 12, 2013. PHOTO | KEVIN ODIT |
You must be ready to disagree with yourself and to disown your thoughts at the first hint of a knit on his brow. His suggestions are most wise and may he, please Sir, deign to tell your humble self how he came upon such extraordinary wisdom? Is it hereditary?
The longer a boss stays in the same office, the more this culture gets entrenched. In time, the entire mission of the organisation becomes to magnify his eccentricities; if he is happy, you become twice as happy, if he is angry, you become twice as angry and if he is brooding, you brood twice as much. It is not necessary to know the reason why.
Changes in an organisation like this one nearly always assume the characteristics of an explosion, a script-less spontaneity. Kipchoge Keino didn’t see it coming and some of his diehard loyalists can’t believe they did what they have done.
My mind, therefore, is not on the clean change that will happen in the Nock elections next Friday. It is on what follows next, the official handover. I can’t wait to watch that one, if it will happen.
Because of the stress of such an occasion, people do whatever they can to reduce the tension. The handshakes among the men are overdone, making them look like arm wrestling contests.
There is loud, forced laughter at jokes that are not funny. And even a fly that strays through the window or a convoy of tiny black ants, common during this rainy season, can trigger a lively discussion – just to relieve the tension.
National Olympic Committee of Kenya chairman Kipchoge Keino (right) and Association of National Olympic Committees of Africa president Lassana Palenfo arrive for the Nock extraordinary General Meeting at Plaza 2000 amidst a demonstration against the Kenyan Olympic body on November 24, 2016. PHOTO | MARTIN MUKANGU |
Kipchoge Keino’s public career should never have ended like this. At the interface of colonial and independent Kenya, the nation’s big gun in athletics was Seraphino Antao, the “Coast Cheetah”, who sprinted his way to double gold in the 100 and 220 yards in the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia.
SIEZED THE MANTLE
Keino seized the mantle of leadership from Antao with spectacular performances in the 1965 All Africa Games in Congo, Brazzaville, and the Olympic Games of Mexico and Munich in 1968 and 1972.
He became a living legend. In the 1960s and early 70s, he was possibly the most famous Kenyan after President Jomo Kenyatta. He raised the bar of success too high for future athletes by always being a double medallist, sometimes both gold.
In Brazzaville, he won gold in the 1500 and 5000 metres. In Mexico he won gold and silver in the same events. In Munich, he won gold and silver in the 3,000 metres steeplechase and the 1500 metres. In the Commonwealth Games of Kingston, Jamaica in 1966, he won double gold in the mile and three miles while in the same Games of Edinburgh in 1970, he won gold and bronze in the 1500 and 5000 metres.
These are achievements that speak for themselves. So omnipotent did Keino become in the national psyche that when Ghana’s Black Stars, the then African champions, were flooding a badly leaking Harambee Stars goal in the 1965 Jamhuri Day match, a despairing President Kenyatta wished for Kipchoge to help stem the tide. Too bad the seemingly superhuman policeman was not a footballer and 13-2 it was for Ghana.
The team captain to the Munich Games was Robert Ouko. Yet this did not stop the Daily Nation from writing an editorial on September 2, 1972 that begun:
“Our heroes and heroines, as you will have heard on the news, will be returning home from the Munich Olympic Games this week, and the Mayor of Nairobi, Coun. Miss Margaret Kenyatta, has led the way in preparing to welcome them with a civic reception on Thursday evening. Kip Keino and his fellow Kenyan athletes are bringing back with them two gold, three silver and five bronze medals which they won at the Games. It’s a sizeable collection and a great honour to their people and country.”
Keino earned my respect when he pulled me aside during a State House reception to complain about a story I had written describing in fairly scornful terms the massive shopping the team to the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles had done. “Roy,” he told me quietly while looking at me straight in the eye, “we used our own money. Our allowances. What do you do with your own money? You use it as you please. What’s wrong with that?”
National Olympics Committee of Kenya President Kipchoge Keino launches the second privately-owned sports track with an artificial turf at the GEMS Cambridge International School in Nairobi, on November 29, 2014. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP
I agreed with him and was careful the next time. But using their own money is not what became synonymous with officials of the Nock that he led. The worst possible corruption, the ugliest face of Kenya, happened under his watch. The country reached its lowest level in Rio and dealt a mortal blow on my capacity to have faith in our elected officials, sports or otherwise.
While MPs were looting taxpayers to wine and dine (and do other things) in Rio’s classiest hotels, Keino’s sports officials were cleaning out our athletes of their kit, just as they had done in years past. Walking the streets of Rio, I thought sorrowfully to myself: this cancer is in our DNA. Robbing the people you are taking care of is worn as a badge of honour.
I was particularly upset about the way he had thrown John Anzrah under the bus. I remembered the first time we were together. It was in Brisbane, Australia, during the 1982 Commonwealth Games. Anzrah, Joe Kadenge’s younger brother and a very funny man, very pleasant character, was running in the sprints. Keino was the athletics head coach.
In Rio, Anzrah, now the sprints coach, was kicked out of Brazil by Games officials on the grounds of impersonating an athlete. He hadn’t been issued with an accreditation badge and had borrowed one just to try and get something or the other done.
I thought: Thirty four years of working together and still Kipchoge couldn’t intervene to save the coach? Not accrediting him was in itself unforgivable.
Some things should not be allowed to go unpunished and when they do, they leave in their wake a trail of despair. I found Anzrah’s treatment hard to take.
I watched with mixed feelings as Keino became the first ever Olympic Laureate during the opening ceremonies of the Rio Olympics at the Maracana Stadium. Mixed because as an athlete, he had scaled sport’s highest summit, no mean an achievement for a police instructor from Kiganjo College. It takes focus and an abiding discipline to achieve that. You also don’t get such honours because you come from the correct tribe or tribal formation. You earn it. And he had earned it. I admired that.
But he was also leading a corrupt organisation. Even before the massive thefts of kit became clear, Nock was already sullied. By turning a blind eye to the corruption that came to symbolize the committee he led, I felt that it was as if Keino was wilfully sabotaging his own legacy.
Keino’s example, especially in the 1960s and 70s, captured our nation’s imagination. The same Daily Nation editorial, after singling him out from his team mates, concluded: “Now that Kenya has emerged as a strong African sporting nation, we feel that all the potentialities there are in the country should be sufficiently tapped. Schools and other institutions should be encouraged to induce the youth of the country to prefer athletics to say, boogie dancing or wasteful drunkenness.” How many young people in Kenya hold Kipchoge Keino as the epitome of the person they would like to become?
That is out there.
But this much we can agree on: Again! Here lies in ruins a public career that should never have ended the way it has. It should have finished on a soaring note, the legacy of all those achievements in place. It should not have ended in lacking a proposer or seconder for the office he wanted to keep.
Kipchoge Keino is not small potatoes. He is a giant. His kind is the one that inspired the composers of the Olympic hymn to beseech the immortal spirit of antiquity to make us “throw fadeless flowers to the (Olympic) victors/in the race and in the strife.”
But now what we have been treated to is the tragedy of the sole Olympic Laureate holding in his hands nomination forms that nobody wanted to sign.
Where did he go wrong? What mistakes did he make? Why such an ignominious ending to so illustrious a life in public service? And what lessons does it have for all of us?