Kenya’s greatest sportsmen and women of the last 50 years

By Roy Gachuhi

Joginder Singh lost his gearbox, drove in reverse for four and a half kilometres against on-coming Safari Rally traffic, found himself behind 115 cars but against all the odds, he fixed it and overtook them all, save two, after he just run out of time and road.

Henry Rono, possessed of a mysterious talent, smashed four world athletics records in the space of less than three months and – together with Stephen Muchoki, world amateur boxing champion in 1978 – became Kenya’s greatest Olympian who never was because of world politics.

Mahmoud Abbas stopped penalties when opponents needed them most and became the embodiment of the eternal rivalry between Kenya and Uganda when his two saves ended the Cranes’ 15-year unbeaten record at home in the CECAFA Challenge Cup.

Avtar Singh reigned in the Guiness Book of Records for years as the world’s most capped hockey player with 167 internationals for the Kenya national team.

And as a tennis-court ball boy at the Nairobi Gymkhana, Thomas Odoyo watched cricket from the corner of his eyes, liked it, took it up, and went to become one of Kenya’s greatest all-rounders. From seemingly hopeless positions, he was able to steal victories for Gymkhana and Kenya and came to be known as a match-winner.

Kenya is 50 and the sublime moment of saying “I witnessed” is here. This moment unleashes feelings of nostalgia and inspires hero worship. Fortunately, after conforming to all the discipline, sports writers are forgiven and allowed the indulgence. After all, who cannot be moved by seeing what is thought to be humanly impossible and after that retreating to write about superman?

But with the beautiful memory comes the hard work. The Editor’s demand here is for a list of Kenya’s Greatest Sportsmen and Women of the Last 50 Years and reasons for their selection. This requires consideration of a bewildering array of parameters, from longevity in the national team, to Olympic and world championship performance, to contribution to society and making the greatest impact, however short the time one performed on the national stage.

The challenge is always that these parameters sometimes get into each other’s way and can cancel out each other. All said and done, it can sometimes be easy, like selecting Robert Wangila, the only Kenyan and African to win an Olympic boxing gold medal and it can also be impossibly difficult, like trying to wade into the minefield of who the greatest footballers are. One sport features individuals and the other a team.

Remember what Pele said: “A ball passed well to a striker is every bit as important as the goal itself.”

That should warn us against Sambu’s folly. Alfred Sambu once thought the best way to motivate his AFC Leopards team was by rewarding the leading goal scorer with Kshs 10,000/-. Deservedly, he got a player rebellion.

But the task is inescapable and, true enough, there are players and there are players. We have waded into that territory and we have finished the task with tremendous respect for those we have left out. And we are ready for the robust feedback which we know is coming. This applies to other team sports like hockey, volleyball, basketball and cricket as well.

When asked to travel around the world and take pictures of prospective medallists against the monuments and landmarks of their country’s for TIME Magazine in the lead up to the 1984 Olympics, Neil Leifer, the world famous sports photographer, remarked: “Not only was this the best assignment I’ve ever had; it was also the best I’ve ever heard about.”

For me, to be asked by the Nation Media Group to select our greatest sportsmen and women of all the years of our independence is to almost enter sacred territory. I have seen how these people have become the focal point of our unity when politics emphasises our differences. I have seen them give us a collective identity when we retreated into race, tribe and religion.

And I have seen them give hope to poor children in dusty playfields who over 50 years have grown up wanting to be like them. It’s therefore been a great pleasure and privilege to participate in this assignment honouring our best. It is subjective even as it was guided by only one word: objectivity. That is the nature of sport – the one I like is the one you don’t.

Give us your feedback. Criticise us, vehemently if that’s how you feel. We are democrats – to us, even compliments are welcome.

Below follows the 50 names that my team and I sent to the Editor:

Motor sports

  1. Shekhar Mehta. Against faster cars and better international drivers Mehta used his mind to plan and strategize to win five Safari Rallies. Surinder Thathi remembers Shekhar sitting for hours with the “rally itinerary” thinking about each section and where they could get an advantage over the faster cars and then going out and practicing those areas much more than others to get the slight advantage. He was the highest paid rally driver in Kenya by far for many years because he made the best deals with the teams.
  2. Vic Preston Junior .All his life revolved only around motor sport. From his youth he was involved in Motocross in which he became champion, then dominated trial bike riding over obstacle courses, then raced motor bikes and race cars (like the Brabham) at both Nakuru and Embakasi race tracks. In motor rallying he drove for many teams like Ford, Lancia, Audi, Porsche and Nissan and won many local rally events and good finishes in the Safari Rally with podium positions several times. Lastly he drove in Karting at Nakuru and dominated this discipline as well.
  3. Joginder Singh. Won the Safari Rally in 1965 and then twice more. He also won many national rallies and was a popular nation hero known fondly around East Africa. His name is still mentioned in rally discussions all over Africa.
  4. Ian Duncan. Again a very multi talented motor sportsman. Started in Motocross and was champion many times. He drove in rally and won from the early 90s and is still winning. He has won the Safari Rally and the Classic Safari Rally.  Drives in Autocross, Cross Country rallies and Enduro and has won all these championships as well.

    Ian Duncan

    Ian Duncan

  5.  Shivam Vinayak. Vinayak has dominated Motocross for over five years now and has won many awards for Kenya in international Motocross meetings around Africa.

Cricket

  1. Jawahir Shah.  A top-notch middle-order batsman for a decade and a half. Technically the most correct batsman, compact, beautifully balanced expert and arguably the most adroit player of his time. He bowled himself out on Oct 11, 1980, at the age of 38.
  2. Zulfikar Ali.  A lion-hearted performer who was arguably the best all-rounder of his time. Though bowling was his strength, his bat was never dry. He inspired many cricketers. He also captained Kenya.
  3. Steve Tikolo.  He was Kenya cricket’s poster boy for more than a decade. As captain nobody can doubt that he was the best one-down batsman in the country. As an all-rounder he also bowled gentle off-spins, seemingly innocuous but deceptively effective in one-day game.
  4. Thomas Odoyo. From a tennis court ball-boy at Nairobi Gymkhana, he watched cricket from the sidelines, understood and mastered the game to become one of the solid Kenya all-rounders. From seemingly hopeless positions he was able to steal victories for Gymkhana and Kenya.
  5. Asif Karim. He was undoubtedly one of the greatest left-arm spinners. He regularly played for Kenya and Nairobi Jafferey. He also captained Kenya.
  6.  Mehmood Qurashy. One of the great all-rounders of the late ‘70s and 80s. He captained Kenya and Sir Ali Sports Club. Moodi, as he was fondly known, would take on any bowler and plunder runs aplenty once settled down. His approach to the game was dynamic.
  7. Maurice Odumbe.  One of Kenya’s genuinely international-class players. He could hold his own in the side either as an aggressive middle-order batsman or spectacularly accurate off-spinner. In Kenya’s historic win against the West Indies in the 1996 World Cup, he was named man-of-the-match for his magnificent spell. He also captained Kenya.

    Odumbe

    Odumbe

Boxing

  1. Philip Waruinge. Perhaps Kenya’s most stylish ring craftsmen ever. He first participated in the 1964 Olympics. He won a bronze medal in the 1968 Olympics but the real story was that he was awarded the Val Baker Trophy, given to the best boxer of the Games, always a gold medalist. Organizers were making up for an incomprehensible semi-final decision against Waruinge.
  2. Robert Wangila. The only Kenyan and African boxer to ever win an Olympic gold medal, which he did in Seoul, 1988. A professional career ended in bad head injury which tragically turned fatal. Few Kenya boxers ever punched as hard as he did.
  3. Stephen Muchoki. Commonwealth Games champion in 1974, World amateur losing finalist in the same year and finally world amateur champion in 1978 after overcoming the same man who had beaten him four years earlier. Like Waruinge, speed and cunning were the hallmarks of his game.

Hockey

  1. Avtar Singh. Kenya’s eternal Olympian, he was king when we were kings. He participated in the Olympic Games of 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972 as a player those of 1984 as head coach. He was captain in all those Olympics when he played save for 1960. He also led Kenya to a fourth place finish in the 1971 World Cup. He was, according to the Guiness Book of Records, the world’s most capped hockey player with 167 internationals for Kenya.
  2. Alu Mendonca.  Played at left wing during the 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968 Olympics. Also coached the national team at the end of his playing career. His discipline, like that of Avtar, accounted for the long international career played at the highest levels of the game.
  3. Surjeet Singh Parnesar. Played in the 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympics. Parnesar mainly played as a centre half but he was also a good all-rounder, exhibiting enormous energy throughout the game. He was a pillar of the national team that routinely defeated India and Pakistan, even when they were Olympic and world champions.
  4.  Jack Simonian. An unusually multitalented sportsman, he was goalkeeper of the team during its golden years. But he was also a fine motor sportsman, excelling in motor rallying and motor bike races. All these he did at the highest levels.

Football

  1. James Siang’a. Goalkeeper of the independence era. Turned out for the future Harambee Stars for 13 years, in itself testimony to his brilliance and immovability. Also coach of the national team. He has coached in other countries in the region, an uncommon Kenyan export product.
  2. Mahmoud Abbas. The debate will never end as to who between him and his mentor Siang’a was greater. But Abbas had the singular talent for stopping penalties. Even when Kenya played poorly, this earned him the attention of experts and he has been lauded as one of the greatest goalkeepers to come out of the African continent.
  3. Jonathan Niva.  Kenya’s first overlapping full-back, an outstanding, even overbearing personality on the field. He dominated AFC Leopards on the pitch and off it. He brought much character-based baggage to both Leopards and Harambee Stars for which he also played and coached, but no list of Kenya football greats can be without Niva’s name.
  4. Bobby Ogolla. Kenya’s greatest central defender ever. Fondly nicknamed the Six Million Dollar Man after the lead character of a 1980s television thriller series of the same name, Bobby was the kind of player only injury or age could remove from Gor Mahia and Harambee Stars. The Number Four jersey was his for keeps.
  5. Josephat Murila. The AFC Leopards and Harambee Stars centre half was as fine a footballer as one could ever wish for. He had high speed for a defender, great skill on the ground and in the air, a cool temperament and an amiable personality. They called him The Controller. I called him the man who never put a foot wrong. He was both.
  6. Sammy Owino. Sammy was one class behind me in high school and I told him he would play for Harambee Stars when only our school football team knew him. Those who never saw him missed magic. When Gor Mahia said the first half is Gor and the second is one Magic, it was Kempes, as they called him, on their mind.
  7. Allan Thigo.  He was variously called the 90-minute man because he was never up for substitution or the midfield general which he was. He had tremendous influence on other players and exhibited unusual capacity to single-handedly alter the tempo and rhythm of a game.
  8. Wilberforce Mulamba.  To talk of Mulamba, also nicknamed Maradona, you must first issue a caveat: “When he was in the mood.” Because when he wasn’t, he could make you cry with frustration. But when he was in the mood and with form to go with it, he could fit in any World Cup finals team in the world, dare I claim.
  9. Victor Wanyama.  When Harambee Stars denied Uganda Cranes a place in the Gabon/Equatorial Guinea Africa Nations Cup, I asked Abbey Nasur, a former Gor Mahia great, who done it? I expected he would say Arnold Origi, our goalkeeper. But Nasur was obsessed with Wanyama and seemed stuck with him. Wanyama was not famous at that time. Nasur made me develop an interest in him. Now you know why.

    Wanyama at Celtics

    Wanyama at Celtics

  10.  Denis Oliech. When Kenya football plummeted to its lowest lows after the highs of the 80s, he is the one who revived it. He was the first of today’s football celebs; he broke the glass ceiling and became a hit abroad. Technically, I am not sure he can hold a candle to JJ Masiga but warts and all, we owe him the world for giving us back our game.
  11.  McDonald Mariga. He became bigger than Oliech in Europe. Hobbled by injury, fans must pray that his medical and technical people make him do all the right things. If they don’t, the only midfielder today – along with his brother Victor, of course – who could play alongside Mulamba and Owino in the 1980s may face a tragic early sunset. May that not happen for he is truly one of our greats.
  12.  Joe Kadenge. He inspired Leonard Mambo Mbotela, icon of our radio airwaves, to croon over and over: “Kadenge na mpira, Kadenge na mpira, Kadenge, Kadenge, Kadenge, shoot – Gooooooaaaal…!!!”  All East Africans, from the days of the Gossage Cup to today’s fans who don’t know what that is, revere Joe Kadenge. He was probably the original celeb. Some team mate critics of his time say he held on to the ball at their expense just so that “the radio” could keep calling his name. But that will never take away from his greatness.
  13.  Joe Masiga. JJ helped AFC Leopards to a semi-final place in the 1981 CECAFA Club Cup in Malawi, jumped into a plane and returned home to do his final year exams at the University of Nairobi – passing them, as it turned out later, to qualify as a dentist. He jumped into the next plane to Malawi and arrived just in time for the final against arch-rivals Gor Mahia. He scored both Leopards’ goals but they lost, 3-2 and that was cruel luck. That story is snippet of his character. He remains a good example to the youth.
  14.  William Chege Ouma. There is Denis Oliech and there was JJ Masiga. But fans of Kenya football of the 1970s are insistent that there never was a greater striker than William Chege Ouma. His sudden change of direction, his cunning and his exquisite ball handling skills, have not been seen in Kenya since he left the scene. I saw him only briefly but I have been told for more times than I can remember that there was only one Chege and he’s gone.

Athletics

  1. Kipchoge Keino. With four Olympic medals including two golds, Kip Keino was at the forefront of Kenya’s breakout into international athletics. His victory over American world record holder Jim Ryun in the 1,500 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Games was a precursor of things to come. At the 1972 Munich Games, he won the 3,000 m steeplechase gold. He remains active in sport and serves as the Chairman of the National Olympic Committee of Kenya.
  2.  1972 Munich Olympics 4×400 metre relay team. In the 60s and 70s, Kenya was competing at global level in the sprints. The culmination of this was the gold medal at the Munich Olympics by Julius Sang, Robert Ouko Charles Asati and Munyoro Nyamau beating sprint powerhouses such as Great Britain and the United States.
  3. Tegla Loroupe. Loroupe is a former world record holder in the marathon and the first African woman to win the New York Marathon. She has also won the London, Boston, Berlin and Rotterdam Marathons. She remains in the spotlight today with her remarkable work that uses athletics to bring peace to warring communities in Northern Kenya.
    Tegla

    Tegla

  4. Rose Tata-Muya. One of the breakout athletes of the memorable 1987 All-African Games in Nairobi, Rose Tata-Muya won a silver medal in the 400m hurdles event and captured the country’s imagination. She set the Kenyan record of 55.44 at that event and it still stands today.  Tata-Muya has also served as a coach for the Kenya team.
  5. John Ngugi. Ngugi was at the forefront of Kenyan cross country domination, winning five titles between 1986 and 1992. The highlight of his career was the 5000m gold at the 1988 Seoul Games, where he was part of one of Kenya’s most successful Olympic squads.
  6. Paul Tergat. One of the greatest long-distance runners of all time, Tergat won five World Cross Country titles between 1995 and 1999. His rivalry with Haile Gebreselassie in the 90s led to the continuous lowering of the 10,000m world record and took the event to a new level. He transitioned to the half-marathon and marathon and broke world records in both events. He currently organizes SOYA, Kenya’s most prestigious sporting award.
  7. David Rudisha. David Rudisha was named IAAF World Athlete of the Year in 2010 at only 21 years of age after breaking the 800 m world record twice in one week and was crowned world champion after a commanding performance in Daegu in 2011. At the 2012 London Olympics, Rudisha produced the performance of the games, winning the gold medal in a world record time and became the first Kenyan to concurrently hold three of athletics’ highest honors – World Record Holder, World Champion and Olympic Champion.
    Rudisha

    Rudisha

  8. 8.     Vivian Cheruiyot. She started her career as the junior champion at the 2000 World Cross Country Championships and transitioned well into the senior level of competition. 2011 was her defining year with gold medals in the World Cross Country Championships and the 5000 m and 10,000 m at the World Championships. She capped the year with a Laureus Award, one of the highest honors in sport. At the 2012 London Olympics, she won a silver medal in the 5000 m and a bronze in the 10,000 m.
  9.  Elizabeth Olaba. Taking the less travelled road is never easy, and that is the path that field athletes take in Kenya. Between 1981 and 2000 Elizabeth Olaba had ten national shot put titles and her national record of 15.60 m from 1987 is still standing.
  10.  Jacob Katonon. An unsung hero of Kenyan athletics, Katonon holds the Kenyan records in the high jump (2.24 m), long jump (8.12 m) and the triple jump (17.12 m). He represented the country in the triple jump at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, putting him in the rare company of Kenyan Olympic field athletes.
  11.  Henry Rono. Rono is known for one of the most remarkable achievements in distance running – four World Records in 81 days – in 3000 m, 3000 m steeplechase, 5000 m and 10,000 m. This achievement has never been matched and in all likelihood never will.
  12.  Seraphino Antao. Born and raised in Mombasa, Antao was part of the Achilles Athletics Club at the coast. In 1956, while working for East African Railways and Harbors Corporation, he entered the company athletics competition and won the sprint events. Antao’s greatest moment came when he won double gold in the 100 and 220 yard events at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia; these were Kenya’s first gold medals at a major championship.

Rugby

  1. Simon ‘Lofty’ Reynolds. The big Nakuru RFC second row was a permanent starter on the East African rugby union team. Reynolds represented East Africa against South Africa in ’61, the British Lions in ’62 and Wales in ’64.
  2.  Bill Okwirry. The Impala RFC forward was known for his aggressive pitch exploits. Okwirry played representative rugby and participated in the formation of Miro RFC in 1974.
  3. Jackson Omaido. The straight running, hard hitting centre played for East Africa, Kenya,  Kenya sevens and all representative sides in his time.
  4.  Max Muniafu. ‘Mad Max’ as he was popularly known, was picked for the East African ‘Tuskers’ after tackling three players in the same movement while still an unknown. Muniafu maintained that status throughout his playing career.
  5.  Edward Rombo. The tough talking winger was at the forefront of Mean Machine’s comeback in the late ‘80s.  At age nineteen he was already a national team winger.