Tusker Team Kenya seeks to inspire a celebration of exactly what it means to be Kenyan. To be a part of any group of people is to share in wins and fails, even when it is individuals who have to carry the dreams of millions. Nowhere does that sense of patriotism make most sense than when we are all raising chilled bottles of Tusker Lager to our athletic heroes. Skinny, determined, dark as night, and hardly coherent, generations of our athletes have told the Kenyan story on the international stage.
The stage we now claim was once the domain of sturdy Anglo-Saxon runners. It seemed like an unchangeable situation until a small disruptive force was freed from colonialism in 1963. From that freedom, a mere four decades since someone at the Stanley Hotel bought the first Tusker Lager ever, emerged a young nation on a mission to conquer the world. Sent on that mission was a small group of men whose brief was to participate in the 1964 Olympics in Rome. Expectations were low. Then Wilson Kiprugut surged to the bronze medal in the 800m final.
With that third position came a hunger for something, something great. Four years after Kiprugut’s bronze, two men sealed the deal. It was a man called Naftali Temu who, driven by sheer willpower as his comrade Kipchoge Keino fell out, surged to win the 10, 000m final. Kipchoge was in the leading pack but he was suffering from excruciating gallstones. The race was now between Temu, Australian Ron Clarke, Momo Wolde of Ethiopia, and Mohammed Gammoudi. Clarke tired and slipped off the pace. Gammoudi followed, leaving Temu and Wolde as the only real contenders. In the last 100m, Temu pushed himself, harder than he had ever. He crossed the line a mere 0.6 seconds ahead of Wolde in what was a staggering, exhausting race. The tough Australian runner, Clarke, finished the line sixth. He promptly collapsed and was unresponsive for ten minutes. Kenya’s athletic gold rush had begun, and it wasn’t going to stop. A legend had come to the world stage.
Kipchoge, ever the optimist, still ran and won silver in the 5, 000m final two days later, and qualified for the 1, 500 m final on the same day. He was announcing the entry of force only interested in winning in style. The man was a small mass of super wonder and awesomeness, but the gallstones were killing him. His doctor told him not to run the final that made him a legend, and he agreed. He slept in but changed his mind sometime before the race. He got into a bus to the venue, got stuck in traffic, got out and ran two miles just in time to register for the race. Then he got in there, and ran the distance in 3:34:9, breaking the world record ahead of a man who was fresh while he had run five races the previous week.
A legend had indeed been born into the world stage, directing generations of researchers to a rather small country in East Africa that was churning out gold medalists by the dozen. No one knows, to this day, what exactly makes the Kenyan runner so unique. It could be the milk, or even the knob-like ankles and knees, or the high altitude, or the promise of money and glory. Still, more than five decades after Temu and Kipchoge announced the entry of a powerhouse on the world stage, Kenya’s dominance is still uniquely staggering.
The most powerful image of Kenya’s enduring dominance in athletics is that of Nixon Chepseba at the end of the 1500-meter heat during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The image shows him walking past Germany’s Carsten Schlangen and Spain’s Diego Ruiz who have both collapsed on the track. Chepseba looks fresh as if he just left the shower and is ready to face the day. Two years later, at the Austin 2015 Marathon, Hyvon Ngetich led most of the race, then began to wobble and stagger with only a few meters remaining. She fell, and despite a few attempts to stand up, couldn’t. She declined to be helped out of the race in a wheelchair, and instead crawled to the finish line. When asked why she had crawled for an excruciating 400 meters, she said, “In running, you have to keep going.”
That sums up just about what it means to be Kenyan.
For this and the other many unsung heroes who have made our country a dominant force on the track, let us raise a chilled Tusker Lager. A Tusker for the kind of sacrifice that such resilience and hard work takes. A Tusker to winning, and sometimes losing, but most of all never quitting.
To be part of the campaign sign up on the Team Kenya platform by dialling *896# to register. You can also join the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #TuskerTeamKenya.
Owaahh is a writer, researcher and eater of bananas. He blogs at www.owaahh.com. He has a fetish for history, the more bizarre and badass the better, and lives to tell stories. As if he was there too. Sometimes he eats bananas.