African Championships: A lost opportunity

Published on 07/06/2009

Omulo Okoth

Kenya won’t host the African Championships after all. That is the reality, although nobody has the courage to tell Kenyans so. Athletics Kenya won’t make this known to the public for fear of the wrath it will incur. The Ministry of Sports, too, won’t say so for fear of being perceived as killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

For it is athletics that has put Kenya on the world map. Not football, which, however, gets all the attention. Football is the spoilt child of Kenyan sports. And I appreciate Athletics Kenya (AK) chairman Isaiah Kiplagat’s frustration when he put it bluntly on Wednesday. “She has never come to Riadha House (AK headquarters). She will run to football for every small reason, carrying a bag of money.” Kiplagat was referring to Sports Minister, Helen Sambili’s angry reaction to his statement that a communication breakdown in the ministry has created a serious disconnect among its senior officers.

The ministry wants AK to say they are unable to host the event due to limited time. AK won’t say so because they argue they gave the Government enough time to marshall its forces to bring African athletes to Kenya. AK successfully bid to host the 2010 African Championships. They beat Mali 14-13 for the bid to host the event.

Conflict of interests

In Africa, Kenya is the athletics equivalent of Brazil in South American football parlance. In African sports, specifically athletics, Kenya calls the shots. That is why Kiplagat sits pretty on the global athletics ruling body, International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) highest decision-making organ, The Council. David Okeyo, AK secretary, serves in the IAAF Road Racing and Cross Country Committee.

So when Kenya bid to host the event, African countries applauded. They always wondered why Kenya had never hosted this event when smaller countries like Cameroon and Congo had successfully done so.

A Small Problem

But a small problem arose after Kenya was awarded the right to host the event. General elections were held and Maina Kamanda, who was Sports Minister when this event was awarded to Kenya, lost his parliamentary seat. Prof Helen Sambili was appointed Sports Minister in the Coalition Government. Among the first sports functions she was invited to outside the country was the African Championships in Addis Ababa last year.

As is usually done at the end of such competitions, the next host nation is awarded the African Athletics Confederations (AAC) flag, which marks the beginning of preparations for the next event. Sambili, rightly or wrongly, thinks she was ambushed with the flag. Rightly because she was probably not briefed. Wrongly because the ministry is an institution and decisions made on its behalf are binding regardless of the occupants of those offices.

However, memories of the 2007 World Cross Country Championships, which Kenya hosted amid a myriad of controversies, were still fresh in the ministry officials’ minds. Even AK complained that things did not go on so well although the ministry’s senior officers gave it a clean bill of health.

A section of the Government still thought the 2007 World Cross was a cash cow to some people and they were very reluctant that the Government should be committed to host another high calibre event like the African Championships even the ink dried on the World Cross books of accounts.

So when the Kenyan delegation returned from Addis, a budget of Sh300m was quickly sent to the ministry. A red flag was immediately raised with demands of justification. Time was running out as the ministry and AK were still haggling over the budget. The secretariat should have been in place in January. Sh30m was needed for this purpose.

When AAC President Kalkaba Malboum visited Kenya last March to watch the National Cross Country Championships and also use the occasion to get first-hand information on the progress, the AK and Ministry officials exposed themselves badly, amid a bitter exchange between Sambili and Kiplagat.

We are in June and nothing is in place. This event won’t take place in Kenya, which is a pity because Kenyan athletes alone can make the event so successful. Ethiopia did it and they have a few hundred international runners. Congo and Cameroon have no more than two international runners each. Kenya has about 2,000 top class runners and won’t host the event!

The writer is The Standard’s Sports Editor

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