On the back of Kenya’s brilliant performance in the just concluded World Athletics Championships in London, Sports Minister Hassan Wario announced that the country would bid to host the 2023 event.
“Kenya became the first African nation to win the world championship in Beijing in 2015. It is only fitting that we should be the first country to bring the championships to Africa,” Nation Sport quoted Wario as saying.
“We have a plan to build three big stadiums in Nairobi, Mombasa and Eldoret and seven additional new ones in other parts of the country.”
For once, let us put aside the fact that Kenya is currently on tenterhooks about a decision the Confederation of Africa Football must make soon about whether or not we shall host the 2018 Africa Nations Championships (Chan). World War II-era stadiums in the counties of Uasin Gishu, Meru, Mombasa, Embu, Machakos and other places are currently under refurbishment and next month we shall face some extremely hard to please Caf inspectors.
It is no secret that they have already put their Plan B countries on standby in case they fail us. That is how they work. In a strife-torn continent like Africa, few organisations are as adept in fulfilling their agenda, come hell or high water, as Caf.
Regardless of whether a prospective host country has plunged into war, fallen on hard times or is simply unable to get its act together, Caf just slaps a ban on it and levies a hefty fine before quickly moving to another one. That is what they did to us in 1996 before heading to South Africa. But more about that later.
So Kenya is bidding to host the World Athletics Championships of 2023. Grandiose plans while struggling to move a few small potatoes to the market are not new in Kenya. They have a long, dubious tradition. Here is the Page One splash of the Daily Nation of Friday, November 1, 1968: “Kenya May Bid for 1976 Olympic Games.”
The headline kicker read: “Plans for international-standard stadium are now ready.” Kenya’s biggest stadium at that time was the Nairobi City Stadium. It had a capacity of 15,000 people, most of them standing behind wire mesh and at the mercy of the elements. The 35,000-seater Nyayo National Stadium did not open its gates until 1983 and Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani sitting 60,000 people, would not be ready until 1987.
The story was based on a statement by Ronald Ngala, then the Minister for Co-operatives and Social Services. His portfolio included sport. Read it against what Wario said this week. Ngala said: “Kenya now enjoys a good reputation in world sport and I am sure that the International Olympic Committee will consider our offer.
“It will all depend on if we can build our Olympic-standard stadium before 1976. The stadium will cost between five and six million pounds and most of the money will have to come from the public. I am sure that the public will help generously following Kenya’s tremendous performance at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. The Nairobi City Council has already handed in the plans to the Government and now the Government will have to look into the whole matter.”
Ngala, who tragically died in a road crash in 1972, talked only about an Olympic size stadium. It seemed as if to him the construction of one such would make hosting the Games a done deal. He seemed completely taken up with Kenya’s outstanding track performance and believed that that by itself stood the country in good stead to bring the Olympics home to Kenya.
That is why he got the Nairobi City Council to hand in some plans to the national government. I have not been able to find out how these plans possibly looked like. But the Olympic Games of 1976, when they finally took place in Montreal, Canada had the following events: athletics, football, equestrian, swimming, diving, water polo, modern pentathlon, judo, cycling, boxing, wrestling, canoeing, rowing, handball, water polo, basketball, weightlifting, volleyball, gymnastics, fencing, field hockey and sailing.
Ngala took away the breath of many Kenyans when he estimated the cost of the Games at a colossal Sh840 million at today’s rates. Actually, the Games cost the city of Montreal in excess of Sh300 billion. They became a by-word for extreme risk in hosting an Olympics. The Games saddled Montreal’s taxpayers with a debt that took them almost 30 years to pay off.
But they were the lucky ones. The 2004 Olympics of Athens bankrupted Greece, which today is still in an economic coma. In fact, in the entire history of hosting the modern Olympics, Los Angeles is the only city to have turned in a surplus, $215 million (about Sh21.5 billion at today’s rates). But that is another story.
From aspiring hosts as announced by its Sports Minister, Kenya signed off its 1976 Olympic adventure by boycotting the Games. It joined 29 other mostly fellow African countries who were protesting the presence of New Zealand whose rugby team had toured South Africa in defiance of a United Nations sporting embargo against the then racially segregated country.
But Ngala had drawn a template which was to be followed by his successors and other high officials in sports administration. On Friday, January 14, 2005, Kenya sports fans woke up to this banner headline in Nation Sport: “Kenya ‘to bid for 2016 Olympics.’”
The occasion was the official opening of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya headquarters in Nairobi presided over by none other than the IOC president himself, Jacques Rogge.
The assembled guests were happily tipping their glasses to 50 years of organised athletics in the country unaware of what Ochillo Ayacko, the Sports Minister, had up his sleeve. They very well could have collected their jaws from the floor when Ayacko let them in on his secret.
“I want to say without winking or batting an eyelid that Kenya will be the first country in Africa to bid to host the 2016 Olympics,” he told them with a strong voice and straight face. “I know President Mwai Kibaki has the desire that Kenya be the first African nation to host the Games.”
Nobody looked more flustered than Rogge but he did his best to hide his discomfiture. In fact, being the diplomat that he is, he went along and deftly tried to minimize the effects of Ayako’s thunderbolt.
Still, he could not avoid speaking his truth in no uncertain terms: “I must say that I am surprised by the minister’s announcement that Kenya will launch a bid for the 2016 Summer Games. I can assure you that this will be headline news.”
If you decoded “headline news” and translated it into non-diplomatic language, you would discover that he meant that the announcement would be met with much consternation and derision in the world. And correctly so, of course.
We all, of course, know what became of this bid. It never happened. It didn’t even attempt to leave the ground. What happened in the end was a superlative track performance and robbery of the athletes off it.
Before the 2017 World Under-18 Athletics Championships, the last major international event that Kenya had hosted was the 1987 All-Africa Games. This means that the youngest person who can remember that event is about 35 years old. Certainly, anyone who can describe the performances of Nigeria’s 400 metre star, Innocent Ebgunike or Egypt’s temperamental midfield genius, Mahdi Abdelghani, cannot qualify for the Top 40 Under 40 competition.
Before the 1987 Games was the one-day Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Athletics Meeting in 1979. To the Under-35s who comprise 70 per cent of Kenya’s 40 million citizens, you might as well be writing about sports in ancient Olympia.
Between Ronald Ngala’s spectacular announcement in November 1968 and Hassan Wario’s disclosure this week that Kenya is gunning for the 2023 World Athletics championships even as it holds its breath waiting for Caf inspectors, I have read of too many grandiose plans that yielded nothing.
Reviewing them now feels like walking through a graveyard of dreams with newspaper headlines serving as the tombstones. Even the big one that we actually landed still came a cropper.
In 1993, Caf awarded Kenya the right to host the 1996 Africa Nations Cup.
Kenya football fans were over the moon. Finally, on home soil, they were going to watch Liberia’s World Footballer of the Year, George Weah, Ghana’s Abedi Pele and Zambia’s Kalusha Bwalya.
What happened? Politics – that’s what happened.
President Daniel arap Moi was not just a great sports fan, but a populist as well. He loved crowds. They were the oxygen he breathed. He enjoyed their cheers. That is why he sought them at the flimsiest chance. He was in a permanent campaign mode, dropping many roadside declarations as he moved from rally to rally. He is the one who built the only two international standard size stadiums we have and brought the All Africa Games. He was Fan Number One.
So why did he let a chance at basking in continental glory again slip? Simple: the wrong man was chairman of the Kenya Football Federation. He was the rich and arrogant Job Omino, a man who was in the kitchen cabinet of Moi’s enemy, Raila Odinga who loved football (still does) too much. Moi feared that the 1996 Africa Nations Cup in Nairobi would be turned by the opposition to wallop his beloved Kanu, which he had said would rule Kenya for 100 years.
In 2014, Issa Hayatou, the recently deposed President of Caf, disclosed that President Moi personally wrote to him informing him that Kenya would not host the tournament. Hayatou simply shifted gears. He had a choice between Morocco and South Africa. He slapped Kenya with a two-year ban with a fine and settled on South Africa.
Before Wario can give us more details about his 2023 bid, could he just make sure that history is not about to repeat itself? 2023 can wait.