It’s time we paid more attention to little-known fields of sport
- Strengthening other fields of competition will ensure Kenya does not just depend on athletics and boxing in pursuit of Olympics glory.
Some people imagine that in sports, fanatics are to be found only in the terraces of football stadiums. They are wrong. In my career, I have watched fanatics up close – and they are zealots in what many people disrespectfully call “the small sports.”
Let me tell you a story. The year was 1985, on a January mid-day in the newsroom. I looked at my docket and noted that from the local and international scene, there wasn’t anything “big” happening. I settled to the ceaseless clatter of a dozen typewriters amid the suffocating heat of the dry season.
And then, in the distance, I saw our good office messenger pointing a visitor in the direction of the sports desk. Next, a short, heavy set man, clad in a white open neck shirt and brown trousers, appeared in front of me.
The visitor had an urgency in his manner that impelled him take a seat even before I could motion him to do so. His thick fingers clutched a bundle of papers under his left arm. The smoothness in his abundant cheeks was a statement that he was well fed but he ruined an almost handsome face with his eyes. They were bloodshot.
“Are you the Sports Editor?” he asked me. No, I told him. “But I am acting in his place today. How can I help you?” “I want you to publish these darts results,” the man said as he rustled through his bundle of papers. He was consumed in the process and wasn’t looking at me. He finally found the paper he was looking for and placed it on the desk. “We had a tournament in Jericho last Saturday. These are the results. Put them in tomorrow’s newspaper.”
“If I will have the space,” I told him. He didn’t like that answer and now he faced me squarely. “You mean you won’t put them in tomorrow’s paper?”
That is not what I had said and I told him as much. I explained, as clearly and as politely as I could, that my space was constrained and I couldn’t guarantee anybody anything – and that went for his darts results as well. But from the look on his face, I could see I was losing him and now he came back with a hot rush of words:
“In other words,” he started misquoting me, “I shouldn’t expect to see these results in tomorrow’s newspaper.” I was getting exasperated and was thinking how to repeat myself in a way he could understand when he burst out in a low, controlled explosion of a fury that he had been suppressing: “Why! Why do you people think that darts is a game of drunkards?”
I hadn’t seen that one coming and I choked on a laugh that I was struggling to contain. “Who says darts is a game of drunkards?” I asked him earnestly.
“Everybody!” he thundered. “You all think the same! You are refusing to put our results in tomorrow’s newspaper because you think darts is played by drunkards. I was at the other newspapers and I was told the same thing you are telling me – space! space! space! If football can find space in the newspaper, why not darts?”
I told my visitor that I for one had never considered darts a game of drunkards. In fact, I didn’t think a game of drunkards existed. But he was not paying attention. He was shuffling his papers again, all the while loudly and bitterly complaining to himself that everybody thought that darts is a game played only by drunkards. Then he swept out of the room without bidding me goodbye. He left me with his results. He didn’t say it, of course, but the look in his face told me I was free to light my jiko with them for my ugali that evening if that is what I wanted.
I had never imagined that one of the professional hazards of my job was facing down a darts true believer, a man bearing the results of last weekend’s tournament.
Yet this became one of the defining incidents of my newsroom career. I started paying more attention to the “small sports.” When manning the Sports Desk, I tried my best to look out for them. As a reporter, I remained reader-driven and couldn’t wait to describe the free kicks, the marathon ending or the knockouts in the ring.
Yet a part of me remained firmly anchored elsewhere, to a point that privately today, I find some of the most elevating conversations to be about archery. I religiously read any story about archery in Kenya. I think it is an authentic Kenyan sport, in the category of say, rowing, wrestling and stick fighting – modern-day fencing. More should be done to develop it.
Kenya’s Shehzana Anwar shoots an arrow during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games Women’s competition at the Sambodromo archery venue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 8, 2016. PHOTO | AFP
Shehzana Anwar takes aim with her recurve during past national archery team training session. PHOTO | FILE |
This week, when going through my archives, I found a 1950 report in the East African Standard interesting. It quoted one Mr J.H. Mandefield, then the Nakuru Municipal African Affairs Officer, in his annual report.
Said the story: “After commenting on the ‘highlight of all events’ in African sport in Nakuru in 1949 – the Kenya Athletic Championships – Mr Mandefield reports that badminton, volleyball and tenniquoits all had an enthusiastic following throughout the year. ‘Since badminton was introduced last year, it has become very popular with the African and a fair efficiency has been attained,’’ he said.
I thought: At least volleyball, the women’s side of it, has grown in leaps and bounds. We play at the top levels of it in Africa despite dire facilities and we are a potential world power. But badminton? And you are probably hearing of tenniquoits for the first time and wondering what that is. It has nothing to do with balls and racquets. That much I can report because I played it in the village in the 1960s. And then it disappeared!
In my days on the Sports Desk, one of the associations that ran a robust league was the Kenya Billiards Control Council. Its Kenya Open snooker championship was quite something to report although other clubs such as Goan Institute and Aga Khan had their own competitive Opens.
The all-time master of Kenya snooker is a man named Hafiz Ramji. Between 1973 and 1984 he won practically everything there was to win – the Freeds Open, the Soni Gold Cup, the East African Open, the Kenya Open, the Kenya Open Doubles, the Jamal Pirbhai Open, the Diamond Trust Open, the Kenya Billiards Open and the Nairobi Gymkhana Open.
Kenya’s flag bearer Shehzana Anwar leads her national delegation during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. PHOTO | AFP
He is a Kenya legend and I hope to do a profile of him some day. But he was in good company. Other snooker legends include Mohamed Tariq, Nizar Kanji, Latif Nazarali, Alnoor Gilani, Shaukat Ezmail, Rueben Waweru and Abdi Dahir.
But snooker disappeared. It was eaten by pool. Today, your village sports bar, all corrugated iron sheets and strong grilles and a mighty padlock preventing you from carting away that television set showing you the EPL, has a pool table. Now, I know earlier in this story I said that I don’t believe a game played by drunkards exists. Well! I am not saying that I have changed my mind.
I started with a story. Let me finish with another one. On Thursday, December 2, 1976, Daily Nation Sport had this banner headline: “Men may be barred from netball functions.” (Clarification: I wasn’t there at that time). This is what the story said: “The East and Central African Netball Confederation is considering barring men from their future functions following the bad conduct of some men officials (sic) who attended the recent Challenge Cup tournament at Iringa, Tanzania, the Nation learnt yesterday.
“This was disclosed by some officials who attended the tournament. The officials from Uganda and Tanzania have complained about the conduct of certain men and some have even threatened that unless the confederation takes immediate steps to bar men from its future functions, they will quit.”
The Kenya delegation to the championships was led by Mr Lan Situma, then the vice-chairman of the Kenya Netball Association and Dellilah Achieng, then the chair of the Nairobi Netball Association. The other male member of the Kenya delegation was Ken Kenani, the NNA’s assistant secretary.
Situma had quit his position as secretary of the Football Association of Kenya to join the netball one. Kenani was still an official of Gusii Football Club. Situma and Kenani were into their third year as netball officials.
Other than the two Kenyans, the only other male official in Iringa was one Justine Kibunga, a full time employee of the Uganda National Sports Council.
No complaint was raised against him. It is the Tanzanians who first blew the whistle. Fumed one: “Honestly, one fails to understand whether a country like Kenya cannot find women to lead an all-women’s organisation like netball.”
The Nation picked up the complaint and sought to verify the claim with a member of the Kenyan female staff. She told them: “I am very disappointed. The trip to Iringa has given me an opportunity to see some of these fellows in their true colours. But please don’t quote me because I don’t want to pick up quarrels with men.”
The conduct of these officials in part explains the low level of sports development in Kenya. Many people go into it asking what the sport can do for them and not what they can do for the sport. Is netball still played in Kenya? Or did they and their kind eat it? Officials should expand the pool of “small sports” and strengthen them so that we don’t just depend on athletics and boxing in our pursuit of Olympic glory.
And I thank the guy who mistakenly accused me of treating darts like a game of drunkards for making me think the way I now do. I wish him well wherever he is.