• The kind of pistols used by the starters are real but only fires a blank shot but can be modified to fire real rounds, especially while in the hands of criminals.
• Nyatome’s first responsibility outside the country was in Dar-es-Salaam during the East Africa Community Sports Organization games. There, he had one of his most memorable experiences as a starter to date.
They are the unsung heroes of athletics. The nondescript men and women who stay in the shadows but whose role can make or break an athlete’s career. Welcome to the world of the ‘Starters’. Kenya has six professional starters—the men and women who signal when a race should start. None has the experience of Francis Nyatome, the septuagenarian who has been in the role since the early seventies.
“The role of a starter is very important. Depending on the race, a starter can cost an athlete millions of shillings if he or she delays or is too slow in signalling the start of a race. It is like day-light robbery for an athlete to lose money because of the mistake of a starter. That is why athletes, particularly sprinters, are keen to have some say in who is their starter. All that depends on whether one is slow, quick or in the middle in terms of their execution,” explains Nyatome.
The man, who doubles up as a part-time librarian with Athletics Kenya said he took an interest in the unheralded position on the instigation of his tutor at the Kagumo Teachers Training college John Velsen. Other people who encouraged Nyatome to take up the starters role were British brothers Eddie Evans and Archie Evans, who was Independent Kenya’s first-ever sports officer.
“I had my own interest in being a starter but I was encouraged to take it up seriously by the Evans brothers, having first come to know about it while at Kagumo in 1971. Then we used to use whistles and hooters (horn) but now we exclusively use guns,” Nyatome explains.
The kind of pistols used by the starters are real but only fires a blank shot but can be modified to fire real rounds, especially while in the hands of criminals. “This is a real gun,” Nyatome says as he waves his 2.2mm calibre pistol.
“I have to walk with a certificate every time I have it under my waist so as to avoid mistaken identity cases,” he states. A bigger 9mm handgun is the most common pistol used in major events, according to him.
Nyatome further revealed that he has fired his pistol more than five thousand times ever since he began his role as a starter.
“Apart from AK meets, I have been a starter for Ndakaini Half Marathon, Lewa Marathon and Standard Chartered Marathon among many others. But none of our starters has been able to officiate an international event — something I hope will change in the near future because we have world-class starters here in Kenya.”
Nyatome’s first responsibility outside the country was in Dar-es-Salaam during the East Africa Community Sports Organization games. There, he had one of his most memorable experiences as a starter to date.
“I was still a rookie and when I started a race, an individual who was favourite to win had two false starts. As per regulations, he was to be automatically disqualified. Considering that he was in a team that was contesting for the honours, East African Cargo Handling, they were angry and hotly fought the dismissal even confronting me but I was vindicated. The jury supported my decision and his appeal was dismissed. That gave me the sense of how important our responsibility was from a very early period,” Nyatome recalls.
The 74-year-old is grateful that advancement in technology where modern electronic devices are at the disposal of starters has taken away the possibility of a starter being held individually culpable for an athlete’s misjudgment.
“Nowadays when you make a false start, there are pieces of equipment which give all the details to the tiniest millisecond on who is responsible. A printout is available when one contests a decision by the starters or the referees. If you want to dispute, you do that against a machine and not a human being like in the past. This has saved us from a lot of torture,” he explains.
The starters' role is not restricted to the able-bodied athletes only. Last month, during the Africa Deaf Athletics Championships at Moi Stadium, Kasarani, equipment meant to aid the hearing impaired athlete was on show.
“For those with hearing impairment, we have special equipment and they have been inducted through the process. The white colour from the small instrument out on each lane against an athletes' starting point which tells him or her to get ready, pink (onto your marks) and green (gun is fired to signal the start).”
Nyatome says through this advancement in technology even for the disabled athletes, there are very few occasions of false starts. In his responsibilities, Nyatome has other starters among them Samson Katam (Police), Thomas Ogwacho (Nyanza North), Elkanah Nyang’au (Moi Air Base), Amutala Ali (Western) and Francis Kathenge (Eastern).
“Right now, Kathenge is ailing and in his place we are training Gideon Mbuvi. We are also wary of the lack of gender balance in this profession and that is why we are currently training three women to also join the group,” reveals Nyatome.
Among the women who very soon will be chaperons locally include Caroline Wambui, former sprinter Ruth Waithera from Prisons as well as Winnie Mugenda from Nairobi.
Nyatome reveals that they have received support from AK and IAAF but added that the athletics bodies need now to ensure starters are spread all over the regions in the country so as to avoid situations where only one starter moves up and down for meets.
“We have institutions that can buy the equipment. The Kenya Defence Forces and the universities can ensure they have at least two starters in every region. We need to go beyond the times when one starter was moving from one region to another to officiate different meets,” he suggests.
Nyatome concludes by encouraging AK to embrace the use of an electronic system in a bid to prepare athletes at every period in their careers to international standards.
“We had one in Kasarani but it is now faulty. We have to use the electronic system to ensure our athletes and even starters are up to par. If AK can afford, they can buy them for their various regions because we know institutions like universities, Police, military or Prisons can afford them,” he urges.
While the starters career is a non-permanent one, many youths are not keen to take it up. Nyatome avers that that may be the case mostly due to lack of sufficient information about it.
“It’s a job like any other. If you do it well, you might earn a decent living out of it but most of us do it on a part-time basis,” he finishes.
When not on the track firing his gun to signal the start of races, Nyatome can be found in the small library of Athletics Kenya located at Riadha House. There he is known as the ‘Encyclopedia of Athletics’ or a ‘Walking library of Athletics’ due to his in-depth knowledge of statistics of all leading athletes in the country from different eras. He has served under several AK bosses among them Charles Mukora, Sam Ongeri, Paul Boit, Isaiah Kiplagat and now Jackson Tuwei.
“I got the interest of collecting information from athletes while working at the East African Airways (now Kenya Airways),” reveals Nyatome. “I had historical knowledge of athletes from the fifties and thus it was natural that I became some sort of statistician in athletics. From this, AK gave me the chance to become a part-time person to look after their statistics and take care of their small library and Museum which has very many artefacts-trophies and photos,” he says.
He singles out Paul Tergat (the Nock presider and cross country legend), Mary Okayo, Martin Keino and Hellen Obiri among athletes whose statistics fascinate him.
“Keino did not become an elite athlete like his dad (Kipchoge) but he was the ultimate pacesetter. He and Tergat impressed me with their performances and their benevolent nature,” remarks Nyatome.
Among his roles as librarian and statistician, Nyatome is normally tasked with providing a program for each AK championship. In his advanced age, Nyatome who was born in Kisii, is keen on grooming someone to take over from him in both his roles that are important to athletics in Kenya.
“I want to give someone else a chance and venture into something new. I like it when those I have mentored grow to become meet managers and other such roles. We will not be here forever and I am open to preparing someone else to take up these responsibilities,” he says.
If and when Nyatome decides to call it a day, he will be sorely missed by the athletics fraternity but as a man with a huge heart, he has ensured what he knows will not go away with him.