Eliud Kipchoge is the latest god in a Kenyan culture that worships its sports heroes. In the 1960s, shortly after gaining political independence, Kenyans were enchanted with footballer Joe Kadenge, who inspired the mantra Kadenge na mpira, Swahili for “Kadenge with the ball”.
For most of the 1970s, a rally driver by the name of Joginder Singh captured the country’s imagination. He was a multiple winner of the nation’s iconic Safari Rally, which has been restored to the world championship calendar after a long hiatus.
A plethora of sportsmen and women, mainly runners but also footballers and boxers, has found a stable place in the national discourse since independence in 1963. Kenyans turn to these people for inspiration and hope when the heat of violent politics threatens to consume the nation.
The country’s iconic superstars bridge ethnic divides. They are the healing balm that cools the fires of “tribal” hatred that find expression in the five-year political electoral cycles. Every presidential election since the return of multiparty elections in 1992 has been a violent one with considerable loss of life. As a country, Kenya almost dismembered itself following the 2007 general election and the unifying example of its athletes was cited repeatedly in the desperate efforts made to hold it together.
Kipchoge has secured his place in history at a time when Kenyans are reeling from debilitating economic hardships. Many companies are restructuring and everywhere there are mass layoffs. Unemployment is at an all-time high and the mood on the Kenyan street has never been more grim. The people, in the words of John Mbiti, the world-renowned Kenyan theologian who died recently, are notoriously religious but their prayers have been returning mixed results.
And then comes this man. There is nothing unusual about where he comes from or how he was raised. Most runners come from the same general area, the northern Rift Valley, and almost all of them are born into poverty. But from the dusty tracks of the meandering hills, they will themselves into world champions – and into the hearts of mesmerised Kenyans. Kipchoge fits into this script.
But it is who he has become that sets him apart. He is humble to a fault, cutting the image of a man who would sidestep a fly in his path so as not to hurt it. He speaks more to the human mind and spirit than to the physical body, making him the nation’s most imminent philosopher king of sorts. He is the quintessential family man who prefers to keep domestic affairs domestic in an era of vain self-advertisement.
His creased face makes the 34-year-old look older than he really is. But in a country that venerates age, he looks just perfect, remarkably suited to saying the things he says. He reads a lot, mostly books on philosophy, but when he speaks, none of it sounds as if he took it from a book. He is the embodiment of authenticity. What you see in Kipchoge is what there is, nothing under the table.
The catchphrase of his epic run to finish a marathon in under two hours was: “No human is limited.” It has become a national mantra and depressed Kenyans are using this to face down their hardships. “If Kipchoge says no human is limited,” they say, “it must be true. He has demonstrated it himself.”
Kipchoge has put motivational speakers, an addiction of many Kenyans, in the shade. He is now the motivational speaker because he does it in word and deed. There is something about him that makes you feel immediately connected to him when you meet him. In 2016, I was in Brazil for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. I couldn’t wait for the Olympic race that crowned him champion and I was not disappointed.
But what struck me most was the spontaneous emotion that gripped me as I followed him along. I walked fast along Flamengo Park, the route of the marathon. Organisers had purposely selected this route for the world’s cameras, it would exist only in romantic dreams were it not real. I came by the runners four times as they made their back and forth runs, and each time I yelled “Kenya! Kenya! Kenya!” at the top of my voice.
Soldiers manning the route, all armed with automatic rifles, looked at me without so much as batting an eyelid. I shuddered to think what would happen if somebody tried to do something stupid but I didn’t care.
A star who is easy to love
At around 27km, I took my position just after a gentle bend. And there they were, all three Kenyans running shoulder to shoulder. For a split second, there were four Kenyans, Wesley Korir, Stanley Biwott, Kipchoge and myself.
They were so close I could see the contours of the veins on their necks. They were bathing in their sweat. You felt you could hold their concentration with your hands. And with an energy that spared nothing, I urged them on. It is an exceptionally moving experience. At that point, my wish turned to conviction – the race was ours!
I turned away and started walking to the beach, following the live streaming on my phone. And then, with unsteady fingers and short of breath, I sent a frantic message to my host in Rio: “We’ve done it!” The race was not even over but I was sure it was ours. And indeed it was. Only Kipchoge and other athletes of his kind can elicit so much emotion in somebody else who is just, after all, another countryman.
Kipchoge’s solid reputation
The legend of Kipchoge is going to be with Kenyans for many years to come, possibly generations. His reputation is spotless. There are those of his fellow athletes who have chalked up great achievements in the world but proceeded to besmirch their names with scandal. Some have been caught with their hands in the public till and others have been disgraced by the doping phenomenon. They have hugely disappointed their legions of admirers.
But Kipchoge has conquered the world free of all that. In the run-up to his epic race, he said he was not running for money but to prove that the mentally impossible is physically possible. He was running to inspire a generation. That is why he was not running against another competitor but against the clock. He was running against time. He was believable. And he did it.
As official policy goes, Kenya only grudgingly acknowledges the contribution of its sportsmen and women to the nation-building project. It rarely ever names public utilities such as stadiums, schools, hospitals or airports after them. That remains largely the preserve of political leaders. Even national awards come to them in intermittent drips.
Athletes remain just folk heroes. But what heroes they are. And now, without hesitation, they can proclaim that among these heroes is a giant who is the greatest of all time. His name is Eliud Kipchoge.