The most popular sport in Kenya is soccer. It was introduced by the British to Kenyans in the start of the 20th century, and is a pastime that crosses ethnic and class lines. The national team of Kenya is called the Harambee Stars, and other popular teams are the Coast Stars from Mombasa, the AFC Leopards and the Mathare United.
Despite the popularity of soccer in Kenya, the sport that Kenyans are the most celebrated and world renown for is long distance running. Many outstanding running legends and world record holders have come from Kenya, including Kipchoge Keino, Henry Rono, Paul Tergat and Catherine Ndereba. The 2000 Sydney Olympics marked the seventh time in a row that a Kenyan won gold in the steeplechase event.
Track and Field
The best-seller by American journalist Toby Tanser, Train Hard Win Easy the Kenyan Way, was dedicated to John Ngugi, the first man to win theIAAF World Cross Country Championships five time – four of them in a row (1986-1989).
Prior to his third world title in Auckland, New Zealand, Ngugi devised his own training program. While at the official residential training camp at Kigari Teachers College in Embu, he would sneak out of camp under the cover of darkness at 4:00 am for a 90 minutes long run using a torch to guide him through the route. He would return to the dormitory at cock crow for a 30-minute rest before waking up with the rest for routine training.
In the end, he made cross-country running appear simple but in essence he trained twice as hard as anybody else. By the 2002 centenary celebrations of the Championships, Ngugi occupied the number one spot as the best ever athletes over the open country running format. Even after being overtaken by Kenenisa Bekele (with 11 titles), Ngugi’s winning time of 28 seconds in the 1989 edition of the annual event remains the largest winning margin in history.
The other man to match John Ngugi’s five titles feat, became a runner after joining the Armed Forces in 1989 but initially faired hopelessly poorly against the best of that time. His first exposure in sports was basketball, a sport in which he engaged during school holidays when he visited his father in Nairobi from his rural home in Riwo, Baringo.
The gentleman of sports later evolved into the best of his generation with time through sheer determination. He successfully inter-faced cross country and track running, winning two world championships and Olympics silver medals at the 10,000m. In 2000 he shifted to marathon running, breaking the world record (2:04:58) in 2003 and winning New York in 2006.
The World Food Programme which fed him through the school feeding programme while growing up, named him Goodwill Ambassador in 2002. As a way of giving back to society, he founded the SOYA sports awards in 2002 to add the Athlete magazine, sports foundation and PR firm to his portfolio.
Kenyan Women in Track and Field
In 1994 when Kenya won six out of six IAAF World Cross Country Championships titles, prison wardress Hellen Chepngeno made history as the first black woman world champion.
Prior to this, Edith Masai was the first woman to win the lesser prestigious short course title three times, in a row. She won the last one in 2004 at the age of 36 years. But Jackline Maranga was the first claimant to this division when it was introduced in 1999 by the IAAF to halt Africans domination. The IAAF Council decided in 2009 to make cross country a once every two years event after it became unattractive to the rest of the world because of Kenya and Ethiopia domination.
Ndereba is a twice world marathon champion, winner in Boston four times; twice silver medallist at the world championships has earned US$1.7 million in prize money alone since 1996 when she became an international road runner. By 1999 she had risen to the position of the Number One road racer in the world, a title she retained in 2001. Her fortune excludes appearance fee, bonuses, prize money and endorsements from Nike who have also branded her specially made sun glasses. In the same league is Tegla Lorupe and Joyce Chepchumba with one million dollars each. The men’s list is headed by Paul Tergat with career prize money earnings of 1.3 million dollars.
Alumnus of Albuquerque State University, is the first Kenyan non political leader to grace the cover of TIME Magazine. Hussein, the long serving chairman of Athletics Kenya North Rift Province, is also the father figure of marathon running in Kenya. Since becoming the first black man to win New York and Boston Marathons in 1987/88, Hussein opened doors for successive generations of Kenyan runners to compete in major city marathon races. He went on to win the Boston Marathon a record three times. He also developed unmatched leadership credentials, becoming the assistant secretary of Athletics Kenya and deputy director of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Regional Development Centre for 22 English speaking African countries based at the Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani in Nairobi.
Julius Kariuki and Daniel Komen
They hold the world’s longest surviving track records, which have been referred to as the ‘Everest’ of distance running. Kariuki, whose 1998 3000 metres steeplechase Olympics gold record of 8:05:51 remained unbroken, set a new world record of 5 minutes 14.43 seconds in 1990 in the 2000 metres steeplechase. The last man to attempt it, Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar, failed by more than 10 seconds during an international meeting in Doha Qatar in 2005.
Komen raised the bar for the 3000 metres record of 7:20.67 in 1996, offering a brand new Mercedes Benz to the athlete who will better his mark. The offer from Komen, world 5000 metres champion in 1997, still stands.
Raised by peasant parents in Embu who did not own a car or motorbike, Njiru became the first African to set and break his own records in motorsports between 1987 and 1999 and earn himself a legion of fans. In 1987, he ended African drivers’ jinx of failing to finish the Safari in nine years after finishing 17th in the Safari.
Three years later he became the first driver in the world to finish the Toughest Rally in the world in a Group N Car, a Subaru Legacy. In 1993 he brought a 900cc Subaru Vivio, to the finish line, the smallest car to finish a modern day world championship event. The following year with full backing from Subaru factory in Japan, Njiru finished 4th in the Safari in a Subaru Impreza, the highest African finisher in the history of the Safari.
He also won the Kenya National Rally Championship a record five times. His fame spread like wild fire and after the birth of the Rainbow nation in South Africa, Njiru was invited there in 1992 to bridge the colour bar in sports by competing in an all white sport. He finished a credible 7th in a Nissan Stanza. Njiru also flew the Kenyan flag in Australia, India and Malaysia.
Born in Uganda before immigrating to Kenya in the 70s, Mehta goes down in history as the only Kenyan driver to win the world famous Safari Rally in its hey days as a 5000km marathon over five days.
His first victory in 1973 in a Datsun 240Z was followed by four straight victories (1979-82) in Datsun/Nissan models against the best European professionals in the best machines of that time. Mehta moved to Peugeot but was unable to replicate his Nissan days. He suffered a near fatal accident in the 1987 Pharaoh Desert Rally in a Peugeot 205 which ended his rally career.
He shifted his attention to management, rising to the post of FIA Rallies Commission president. Mehta who teamed up with Mike Doughty during his career in the 80s passed one in 2007 in London following a short illness.
The Safari Rally started in 1953 by motor enthusiasts to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, went on to become the Toughest Rally in the World. Initially ran through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania over a period of five days covering over 5000k, The Safari became subject of folklore all over the world, defying the best drivers from the west.
In 1972 Hannu Mikola and Gunnar Palm in a Ford Escort RS1600 broke the jinx by becoming the first to conquer the Safari. Apart from the victories of Shekha Mehta (1973, 78-82), Joginder Singh (1974/76) and Ian Duncan (1994), the Safari, until it was stripped of the world championship status in 2002, was a preserve of foreigners.
For a record 21 attempts, Finnish ace Rauno Aaltonen could not conquer the safari Rally. He always came agonizingly close to winning but victory eluded him, finishing second five times. In 1981 he was declared the winner after a section he had cleared ahead of Shekhar Mehta was nullified. Mehta appealed to FIA headquarters in France and was declared winner. Aaltonen moved to Opel only to finish second twice By then he was enjoying a large following in Kenya. In his last appearance in the 1987 Safari, the rally ‘professor’ finished 7th in an Opel Cadet. By comparison, Joginder Singh competed in 22 Safaris and finished in 19 editions including three victories.
When Kenya became the first non Test playing nation to reach the 2003 ICC World Cup semi-final, cricket had struggled for recognition for 107 years after being introduced in Kenya by British soldiers who docked in the port of Mombasa in 1896. Kenya broke away from East Africa in late 70s to develop from within. Almost two decades later the country was ready, and in 1990 finished 4th in the International Cricket Council Associated Members Trophy for non Test playing nations.
Four years later in Nairobi, Kenya finished second to UAE in the ICC Trophy to qualify for the 1996 World Cup in Sri Lanka where it caused one of the biggest upsets in history by beating former World Champions West Indies by 59 runs. The ICC gave Kenya One Day Status (ODI) for it to mingle with the best, leading to high profile matches being played in Nairobi. Kenya humbled giants like New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in the process leading to the historic World Cup in South Africa.
Nairobi is the only city in the world with the distinction of having most stadia hosting most one-day international matches. Nairobi has staged one-day internationals on six different grounds – the Gymkhana Club, which has now hosted 57 ODIs, the Jaffery and Ruaraka Sports Club grounds (five each), the Aga Khan Sports Club (four), and the Nairobi Club and the Simba Union ground (one each). The only other city which comes close to Nairobi is Colombo in Sri Lanka, which has four grounds that have staged Tests or ODIs mates.
Tikolo is one of the few cricket players born outside a non-playing nation who could fit into any team in the world. His elder brother Tom, a top administrator in Cricket Kenya, handed him over the baton of national duty in 1996 World Cup and he scored 65 runs against West India and also emerged Kenya’s top scorer with 29 runs. He has produced six of the nine highest scores by a Kenyan batsman in ODI cricket history.
Tikolo has made three ODI centuries: 106 against Bangladesh, 111 against Bermuda and 102 against Zimbabwe. He was dismissed in the 90′s on three occasions.Tikolo further enhanced his reputation as Kenya’s premier batsman with 147 against Bangladesh in the 1997 ICC Trophy final which gave Kenya official ODI status and a place in the 1999 England World Cup. He has played for international teams in Asia, South Africa and Europe. In Kenya he has played for Swamibapa.
Famous Kenyans in Cricket
In Kenya’s football history three players have distinguished themselves on and off the field as they warmed their way into Kenyans hearts. The most recent is Denis Oliech and before him Peter Dawo, whose fame followed that of Joe Kadenge. Dawo will always remain THE exceptional one after he almost single-handedly secured for his team, Gor Mahia, the Africa Cup Winners Cup in 1987, making it the first club in East and Central Africa to win a continental title after topping the goal scorers list with nine goals_ all of them headers.
Dawo and his then Gor Mahia team mate Tobias Ochola are the only players to be ranked among the best in the continent, according to ranking released by the Confederation of African Football in 2006. Dawo later retired from football to concentrate on his career as a worker at the Kenya Railways Corporation headquarters. He retired in 2009.
Kenya in the Olympics
Pamela Jelimo, the first Kenyan woman Olympics champion in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, is also the first Kenyan woman to win US$1 million in a calendar year. In her first full international season at seniors level, Jelimo grossed over Ksh100 million, of which Sh75 million was for winning theIAAF Golden League Jackpot, and the rest in bonuses, endorsements and prize money won in the European circuit.
The Kenyan record holder remained unbeaten in 19 races at the 800m in 2008, running the fastest 800m since 1983 and threatening the world record.