Almost 40 million soldiers and civilians were killed, wounded or missing during the First World War. During its grim trench warfare on and around Christmas Day in 1914 at various places on the Western frontline the fighting paused. Soldiers who’d been shooting at each other climbed out of their positions exchanged small talk, shared cigarettes, sang Christmas carols and even played a game of football. Similar political truces seem to kick in when Kenyans shine in athletics on the world stage.
Kenya’s athletes are currently blowing away the competition at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, China. By the middle of the week Kenya was leading on the medals table with 11 medals. It had six gold medals - twice the number of the second placed team, the United Kingdom with three golds. Kenya’s haul included a medal in the javelin field event. Kenyans are traditionally known for their prowess on the track rather than in the field events. We also took gold in the 400 metres hurdles event that Kenya has never internationally won a gold medal in before. The country with the next highest number of total medals was the US with nine medals.
The victory in China caused an outpouring of joy and pride among all Kenyans across the country. The Internet, Facebook and Twitter in particular, are the most toxic, tribalised and politically polarised space in which Kenyans interact. It is where Kenyans behave at their worst and exhibit the most vitriolic intolerance against one another. The World Championships, however, paused for even seeming mortal enemies to celebrate our athletes.
Indeed, I must admit I have never really understood what is about our runners and other international athletes that causes them to literally embody a national Kenyan spirit more than any other group of Kenyans. Historically and to this day the majority of our best track athletes have been from the Rift Valley based Kalenjin community. While the diversity is growing quickly, however, when they compete outside the country they totally transcend this identity with a profundity that no other occasion can conjure up. Everyone from the President to the former Prime Minister revel in the truly unvarnished national pride they cause in all of us.
Prior to the year 2000, save for a few charismatic figures focused on by the Western press, ordinary Kenyans knew we were world beaters in athletics but if you asked them to name 20 of our top athletes at the time they’d have been hard-pressed to do so. In part this was because the Kenyan running machine was so formidable that by the time you’d learnt of the top athlete in a particular race another youngster burst onto the scene and knocked them off their perch. Today Kenyans increasingly know their runners.
Another impressive development over the last decade is the extent we have seen our women athletes regularly bag almost as many medals as their male counterparts. Vivian Cheruiyot, Hyvin Jepkemoi and Faith Kipyegon have won medals in Beijing. They follow in the proud tradition of Rose Tata Muya and Tegla Lorupe. The success is not only in athletics. Our women’s volleyball team is the most accomplished in Africa and is now moving onto the world stage.
For decades the Rift Valley has been the hotbed producing our world beating athletes. Nothing succeeds like success and so for young Kenyans often will little else to invest in but their bodies and talent, with time a critical mass of world-beaters emerged. To this day a giant organic athletics mentorship machine remains congregated around the legendary St Patrick’s Iten High School in the Rift Valley. Over the decades an attitude, a powerful confidence has come to imbue our athletes. Even the US with its unique model of absorbing the best migrants the world has to offer, making it the most dynamic competitor in most sports, doesn’t faze our runners. They regularly pop over there to pick up marathon medals and hefty cash prizes.
Success has been achieved in other sports as well. The recent second-time winner of the Tour d’France, Chris Froome, is Kenyan born. The Dunford brothers, Jason and David, are world-class swimmers. Jason has won gold at the Commonwealth Games, the All African Games, the African Championships and held African and Olympic records.
Our athletes have come to comprise an increasingly wealthy and sophisticated part of their local communities. They have literally transformed the economy in some parts of the Rift Valley for example and are powerful role models and opinion leaders in their own right courted by politicians assiduously.
Still, the most important thing about them is their capacity to embody the best of Kenya: hard working, successful, confident and utterly determined to achieve their goals. This capacity to embody serves to unite us in a way nothing else in Kenya does. We have a right to be proud of our high achieving sons and daughters.