It took less than 40 days from December 30, 2007 to destroy Kenya’s reputation as an island of peace in a sea of turbulence.
As the west grappled with how to safeguard its interests in eastern Africa, rumours appeared in the international media that even the world-famous Rift Valley-based athletes who had brought glory to Kenya for a long time were getting involved in the violence instigated by the disputed presidential poll not just as victims but also as its perpetrators.
For a while Kenya was written off as peace efforts led by the immediate former UN secretary general, the Ghanaian Kofi Annan, went into top gear.
Less than five months after Annan had helped restore an uneasy peace and a coalition government, Kenya’s athletes put this former British colony back on the world map as Africa’s top sporting nation when they scooped five gold, five silver and four bronze medals that enabled the eastern Africa nation to be ranked 15th overall globally, despite the fact that Kenya competed in only five (athletics, taekwondo, swimming, rowing, boxing) out of the 28 disciplines at the Beijing Olympics.
RELATED: Sport Unites Kenya
Perhaps no one summarises the mood that permeated Kenya and the world as they saw Kenyans outrun other world-beaters in China and hear the Kenyan national anthem repeatedly sang as the flag went up whenever a Kenyan went forth to receive a medal better than Kinuthia Murugu, Kenya’s permanent secretary in the ministry of sports and youth affairs:
“They made Kenyans forget tribe and party. They made Kenyans proud to be Kenyans, one nation united under one flag, singing one anthem, living one dream.”
In a ceremony presided over by the grand coalition government president Mwai Kibaki and attended by prime minister Raila Odinga and vice-president Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, that feted the Olympic winners, Kibaki said, “Our national colours and melodious anthem echoed not just at the Olympic stadium, but also in millions of homes across the globe.”
For the first time since Kenya first participated in the Olympic Games in 1964, the government of Kenya recognised the important role played by the athletes in uniting Kenyans and inculcating in them patriotism.
It awarded each gold medallist Sh750,000 (about US$11,538) and Sh500,000 (US$7,692) and Sh250,000 (US$3,846) to each Silver and Bronze medalist, respectively.
The gold medallists included Samuel Kamau Wanjiru (42km marathon), Wifred Bungei (800m), Nancy Jebet Lagat (1500m), Pamela Jelimo (800m), and Brimin Kipruto (3000m steeplechase).
Those who won silver medals were Janeth Jepkosgei (800m), Catherine Ndereba (marathon), Eunice Jepkorir (3000m steeplechase), Asbel Kiprop, (1500m men), and Eliud Kipchoge (5000m).
Richard Mateelong (3,000m steeplechase), Edwin Cheruiyot Soi (5,000m), Alfred Kirwa (800m) and Micah Kogo (10,000m) each won a Bronze medal.
These brave young men and women gave Kenya more medals than any other nation on the mother continent. Not even Kenya’s nothern neighbour and perennial athletics rival, Ethiopia, could crow. Africa’s economic champion South Africa and most populous nation Nigeria stood no chance against Kenya’s onslaught as they raided the medals store.
Through sports, Kenya’s infamy as a corrupt and violence-ridden ghetto in which tribalism and nepotism reigned, was being erased. Suddenly, people across the tribal and political divide were living up to the “Najivunia Kuwa Mkenya” (proudly Kenyan) rather than “Najihurumia Kuwa Mkenya” (I pity myself for being Kenyan) mantra.
But perhaps this article can never be complete without singling out Pamela Jelimo for special mention. This 18-year-old police constable’s stature has grown beyond any one’s wildest imagination since she first registered her presence when she won at the All Africa Africa Championship trials in Nairobi on April 19, 2008. A couple of days later in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, she demolished a field that included former world 800m champion, the legendary Maria Mutola and Janeth Jepkosgei, whose July 2007 at the Osaka World Championship had dethroned Mutola.
Jelimo, who started running at 13, has become the first Kenyan woman to bag a gold medal at any Olympic games ‘compatriot Nancy Jebet Lagat became the second woman when she won the 1500m gold medal’ when she clocked 1:54.87 minutes in Beijing in August 2008, once again beating compatriot Jepkosgei to second place.
Without losing a single race since April 19, Jelimo went on to bag the US$1 million International Association of Athletics Federation Golden League jackpot in September 2008.
Jelimo, who first won the African Junior 400 metres title in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in 2007 before switching to 800 metres in April 2008, is arguably an inspiration to female athletes in Africa with her Olympics, IAAF Golden League, and World Athletics Final (WAF) titles, among others.