On July 9th, Safaricom unveiled the olympic kits that are part of its twenty million Kenya shillings sponsorship of the team that will be representing Kenya in the upcoming olympics in Tokyo, Japan. The kits, of course, incorporate the colours of the Kenyan flag, navy blue and the plaid pattern of the ultra-famous Maasai shuka. Now, the Kenyan flag has been consistently ranked as one of the most beautiful flags in the world and the Maasai shuka does more for Kenyan tourism than, arguably, the Kenyan Tourism Board but a lot of people agree that this combination on the Safaricom kit, especially with the prominent MPESA logo, is just ugly. Which raises some questions: who okayed these designs and where was the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage when this was happening?
While it is common, maybe even expected, for brands and corporate entities to sponsor athletes, in Kenya’s case, it is almost necessitated by the government’s neglect of the sports industry. Over the years, there have been several news reports of Kenyan athletes stranded both locally and abroad whilst representing the nation in sporting events. In 2016, Kenyan athletes were left stranded in a “Rio shanty” after the Olympic village closed. Wesley Korir, the Kenyan team captain for the 2016 Olympics said that officials delayed their return home because they were looking for a cheap flight. All the athletes, except Eliud Kipchoge who was forced to buy his own ticket home, were ordered to stay indoors while gunshots went off all night. The then Sports Minister Hassan Wario ordered an investigation into these acts of negligence and even disbanded the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (NOCK). If an investigation was done, it didn’t lead to much improvement because in 2019, the national athletics team to the All Africa Games in Morocco was thrown out of Luke Hotel, along Thika road, which was serving as their residential training base, over unpaid accommodation charges going as far back as 2017.
On the unfortunate situation, Olympic javelin gold medalist Julius Yego said, “Sometimes we get mad representing our beloved country Kenya! This is the state for us at St Luke’s Hotel.” Yego’s sentiments continue to be true because on July 2nd, he resigned as the Kenyan athletics team captain for the Tokyo Olympics. Yego cited an unfavourable environment as his reason for quitting the captaincy—Yego had been training for the olympics without a coach. Benjamin Njoga, the Olympic team manager, countered Yego’s claims as dishonest—that arrangements had been made to have Yego’s coach at the camp but he just hadn’t reported due to personal reasons. He also described Yego as indisciplined and lacking in leadership. But Yego isn’t the only athlete who has been ordered to discipline, impossible conditions be damned. While handing over the national flag to Team Kenya for the Tokyo Olympics on July 8th, President Uhuru Kenyatta asked the athletes to “uplift Kenya’s reputation in the community of nations by being disciplined and carrying themselves with dignity.” As he reiterated his government's supposed commitment to developing the sports sector, he also said, “I ask you to be great ambassadors of our country. I expect you to work hard and together as Team Kenya towards building a stronger sporting sector and to bring glory to your country which I believe thereafter will inspire and nurture those who come in future.” Kenyan athletes are constantly asked to be good representatives and make the nation proud whilst getting little to no support from the government.
Kenyan leaders have been making unbacked proclamations about growing the sports industry and creating opportunities for Kenyan athletes for decades. In 2004, Kenya’s sport’s minister Ochilo Ayacko, during the official opening of NOCK, declared that Kenya would bid to host the Olympics either in 2016 or 2020. In 2012, Prime Minister Raila Odinga also declared that Kenya would bid to host the Olympics in 2024. First of all, cities, not countries, make Olympic bids. Second, Olympic bids are made eight years before so cities have at least seven years to build the infrastructure required to host such a massive event. It goes without saying that not only has no Kenyan city made a bid for the games, very little work has been done to improve Kenya’s infrastructural capacity to host the games. The Moi International Sports Centre in Kasarani remains Kenya’s only mentionable stadium. But even it was reopened in March 2012 after its renovation, funded by a 2010 grant from the Government of China, was completed. None of the nine additional stadiums promised in 2013 when President Uhuru was vying for the presidency, have been completed. Most of the stadiums remain no more than forty percent done.
But stadiums aren't the only sports infrastructure that the Kenyan government is falling behind on. In 2013, Machakos’ governor Alfred Mutua vowed to build a formula1 track in Machakos county. To date, the track remains a pipe dream even though the governor recently said that he “remains hopeful that it will be ready by mid 2022.” This determination however, is to be taken with a pinch of salt because Mutua has also said, “At the moment there are no sponsors on board but they will join after the projects start to take shape.”
Of course, President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government isn’t the only one that has promised to grow the sports industry. When former President Mwai Kibaki unveiled Vision 2030, National Sports Promotion was one of the projects. For this, “The government [would] undertake a number of programs to promote sports development as a source of employment for the youth.” This would be achieved through a number of programs including but not limited to, “Building five new national sports stadia in Kisumu, Mombasa, Nakuru, Eldoret and Garissa; Facilitation and encouragement of better management of sports; Building capacity to facilitate a bid to host the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations and the 2019 World Athletics Championships” and a few more. 2030 is only nine years away and all but two of these programs remain unfulfilled. Sports teams in Kenya remain wildly underfunded and mismanaged; the 2019 Africa cup of Nations was held in Egypt and world athletic Championships were held in Qatar, Doha. The two fulfilled programs are: “Establishment of a National Lottery Scheme to fund and support professionalization of local sporting leagues across the major sporting disciplines” and “Support will be given to the Kenya Motorsport Federation to ensure Kenya gets back the Safari Rally in the World Rally Championships calendar.” Kenya did host the Safari rally this year. As for the scheme, there have been reports of many national teams not benefitting from it. In 2019 for example, the national amputee team spent the night outside the offices of the Ministry of Sports at Kencom Plaza. The team was only provided with air tickets, not accommodation, to represent the country in the Amputee World cup in San Juan, Mexico.
Maybe Kenya hosting the Safari Rally this year is cause for hope but considering everything else, Kenyans might just have to get by on unsubstantiated hope.