LONDON — The Olympics ceased being solely about sport a long time ago.
Competition is foremost, but it is also useful to think of the Olympics as a giant convention, which is why some of us were gathered in East London at the Kenya House Friday morning.
C’mon now, when you think of Kenya, what comes to mind? You think of legions and legions of great distance runners, male and female. Kenyan government leaders know this. Kenyan business leaders know this. Distance running is their face to the world.
The distance runners are great indeed, and every Kenyan is proud of them. “Everyone home is behind them,” says Gordon Oluoch, the Kenyan Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports. “In Kenya right now, everyone speaks with one voice. We are all united behind our team.”
But those Kenyan leaders see the 2012 London Olympics as more than merely another excuse to grab medals. They see the Olympics as an opportunity to showcase Kenya’s other assets to the world. Modern Olympics are magnets for Movers and Shakers of all types, not to mention the kind of travelers who are always on the lookout to spread some of that discretionary income around.
We’re talking Tourism. We’re talking Investment. We’re talking about an African nation with more going on within its borders than an unusual proliferation of talented athletes who run far and fast. So for the next two weeks, Kenya House will be open to the world, trying to get The Message out. There will be daily programs of all sorts, all geared to promote Kenya as more than just a distance-running mecca.
“The Olympics are the highest platform we could choose,” says Mary Kimonye, who represents an entity called Brand Kenya. As she explains, “Other forums are basically sectional. The Olympics are global. The only thing comparable might be a United Nations gathering of some sort.”
One of the representatives on hand was Dr. Thomas Kariuki from the National Museum of Kenya. He brought along a little friend known as the Turkana Boy.
As archaeology buffs know, Turkana Boy is the world’s largest example of Homo Erectus. There are other examples in the world, but none this complete, Turkana Boy’s skeleton including his skull and legs among its 108 bones. Turkana Boy, whose estimated age is 1.6 million years, was discovered in 1984 in Nariokotome, near Lake Turkana.
Now you did know that Kenya is the acknowledged place where human civilization began, didn’t you?
Dr. Kariuki fears that most people really have no idea, and this frustrates him to some degree. “History should be one of our best-selling products,” he maintains. “We have got to start marketing our heritage, not just on behalf of Kenyans, but for all humanity. We have a role as custodians on behalf of the entire world.”
There’s plenty more history where Turkana Boy comes from, and Dr. Kariuki would be happy to point any adventuresome traveler in the right direction.
It would be a bit redundant to point out that Kenya has all the tourist stuff you’d expect an East African nation to have with regards to wildlife and scenic beauty. They’ve been known to organize a safari or two. And you can throw in beaches.
Kenya is embarked on an ambitious national program called Vision 2030, which is tackling everything from education to infrastructure. Its head is Dr. Edward Sambili.
“Vision 2030 is a strategy for the country to move forward,” he explains. “We want to show the world that Kenya is a globally competitive country, and that we can move forward in the next 20 years to become a middle-income country.”
“And we want people to know that not only is Kenya ready to do business with the world but that we have the sophistication to compete with the best,” adds Kimonye.
No one doubts their runners can compete with best. Starting in 1968, when the great Kip Keino won a dramatic 1,500 meters in Mexico City, male and female Kenyan runners have won 19 running golds in distances ranging from the 800 to the marathon. They do have great competition from the Ethiopians, but their dominance in one particular event is almost incomprehensible. Kenyan men have won nine of the 11 3,000-meter steeplechase events since 1968. In both 1992 and 2004, Kenyan men went 1-2-3. The women’s event was introduced in Beijing and the best Kenya could do was a shocking silver for Eunice Jepkorir. That will be addressed in due time, I’m sure.
Just making a Kenyan track and field team is a phenomenal honor. According to Gordon Oluoch, in both the 10,000 and the marathon, Kenya has 20 runners who have met the qualifying standards. Chef de Mission Jonathan Koskei says 40 men have the 5,000 qualifying time. The team is chosen as follows: 1 and 2 from the Kenyan trials and the third on “consistency.” And the American and European Ryder Cup captains think choosing their wild-card entries is hard.
The way Kenyans see it, the success of their athletes is no baffling mystery.
“This is who we are as a nation,” says Kimonye. “The athletes work hard, but they are able to develop their talents because we give them the latitude and the freedom to do that. But we have history, too, and culture and we have big plans for the future.”
But first things first. The immediate goal is to go home with another trunkful of medals.