Both world wars, decolonisation and the end of the Cold War brought a new international order in the 20th century, the basic building block of which is the nation-state. Nation building is a complex process that comprises both the establishment of shared cultural standards and the arbitrary creation of national identity.
Kenya is a culturally diverse nation, the boundaries of which were determined in a Berlin boardroom in 1885. Over the course of our colonial history, our cultural differences were used to divide us for the benefit of the imperial overlords.
Sport, like religion, is a forum which brings people of diverse backgrounds together for a common goal. When Seraphino Antao, a Kenyan of Asian origin, won the 100 and 200 yards gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in 1962, he became the first Kenyan to win a gold medal at an international competition.
His name was immediately on the tongue of every Kenyan regardless of their cultural background and we were all full of praise for Seraphino for doing Kenya proud.
In 1965, Kipchoge Keino lowered the 3,000 metres world record by over six seconds, won two gold medals at the inaugural All Africa Games and broke the 5,000 metres world record held by Ron Clarke. Kipchoge became a national sensation overnight, galvanizing Kenyans together as a nation. His picture appeared on the cover of a 1969 issue of Track and Field News magazine, catapulting Kipchoge and Kenya into the elite of international athletics.
Many other athletes such as Ben Jipcho and Henry Rono continued to excel, making Kenya the king of medium and long-distance track events. Our women athletes were not left behind either, with Susan Sirma and Sally Barsosio taking honours in track events.
Kenya had already achieved international sporting fame after the Coronation Safari Rally (later East African Safari Rally) was inaugurated in 1953. The rally attracted top international drivers and crews and was dubbed “the toughest rally in the world”.
Kenyans gathered in large numbers at strategic locations over the Easter weekend to watch this spectacle, cheering on their favourite drivers. In addition, the large number of overseas guests boosted our tourism and foreign exchange earnings. Unfortunately, the event was dropped from the World Rally Championship in 2003 due to financial and management constraints.
Our performance in other disciplines such as cricket, rugby, women’s volleyball, and international marathons has been outstanding over the years, enjoying a passionate support from a cross section of all Kenyans. We are brought together regardless of our tribe, race, colour, culture or social class as players or as fans.
Sports is a great platform to instill a sense of discipline and excellence in young people. It also promotes good health through regular exercise. By focusing on a shared goal, participants learn to work as a team and develop a strong sense of belonging. Because younger people become occupied in rigorous discipline, they are less likely to have time for engaging in other destructive habits such as drugs, alcoholism and crime.
For those young people who may not be academically gifted, sports provides an excellent alternative to explore and discover their talents.
The infrastructure that supports sports creates employment for example in stadia, tracks, sports training, hostels, sports equipment, sports marketing and management. Our sportsmen and women are our ambassadors wherever they go. It is therefore unacceptable when we read that our volleyball team has been kicked out of a hotel for non-payment of fees, or they are relying on well-wishers for their rations.
It is unacceptable that our Olympic team should be living in deplorable conditions in Rio, whereas joyriders are living in luxury. It is unacceptable to read that sports kits donated to our players have vanished. It is unacceptable to read that our sportsmen and women have not been paid their allowances. Our collective national pride is seriously injured by these cases of mismanagement and outright theft. As with all things good, the concept of “them against us” can be used negatively leading to conflict as seen in some sports. Doubtless, there are others who are hellbent on misappropriating funds earmarked for our sportsmen. The widespread problem of doping reared its ugly head in Kenya recently, revealing our soft underbelly in testing and enforcement.
On the balance, sports provides an invaluable platform for nation building.
It is gratifying to note that the Safari Rally has been reinstated to the World Rally Championship from 2020, putting Kenya back on the pinnacle of motorsport, where we rightly belong.
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