How action of one sport official led to 1976 African withdrawal

Mike Boit (right) races in the 800m of the Kenya Athletics championships in Mombasa in 1972. The in-form Boit missed a chance to compete at the Montreal Games after Kenya withdrew. PHOTO | FILE |

Mike Boit (right) races in the 800m of the Kenya Athletics championships in Mombasa in 1972. The in-form Boit missed a chance to compete at the Montreal Games after Kenya withdrew.

By ROY GACHUHI

The World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) gave Kenya all the time it needed to become compliant in operating in an environment of zero tolerance to drug cheats. But what did Kenya do? It got busy doing more important things.

Well, last week, the country was jolted by news that it had been declared non-compliant of the Wada Code and risked being barred from participating in this year’s Olympic Games among other international competitions.

That’s when Hassan Wario, probably the most incompetent Cabinet Secretary for Sport in Kenya’s history, woke up and smelt the coffee. Next the country heard was that he had jumped into the next available flight to Montreal, Canada – Wada’s headquarters – to beg for yet more time to ensure the country’s compliance.

Under his watch, Kenya has missed two deadlines before. It is now up to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) to take pity on us and accommodate our administrative shortcomings. And why shouldn’t they? As good team players, they can be expected to walk at the pace of the slowest member. That’s where we are – we great nation.

Twice, Wario has broken a new Kenya record for attempting to do what must be done after the last minute. But he is still Cabinet Secretary and by all indications will continue to be regardless of the anxieties he has unleashed on millions of Kenyans.

Amongst its dizzying array of missions and visions, corruption-free zones and transparency and accountability, Kenya also has another one called performance contracting. Pray tell, how does it work?

The pitiful thing about all this is that where there should be shame, excuses and arrogance abound. The situation can even be turned on its head so that whoever points out the unacceptability of it all is labelled disgruntled and even unpatriotic.

The nightmare that our athletes and their compatriots have endured over the last few months has origins in a man’s hubristic certainty that Kenya cannot be banned from the Olympics. And when that attitude is rewarded by just such an outcome, that official becomes even more swollen with arrogance and sees no reason to change course. After all, as the Americans would ask, why fix it if it ain’t broke?

But there is nothing new here. African sports administrators have a long history of driving their countries into the ditch and sleeping soundly afterwards.

Forty years ago, one of them, a Nigerian named Abraham Ordia, orchestrated a boycott of the 1976 Olympic Games under the cover of the apparently legitimate reason of fighting apartheid in South Africa. This is how it started. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union, which was not a member of the New Zealand Olympic Committee, decided to send a team on a tour of racist South Africa at just the time the Olympic Games would be taking place in Montreal. That was quite an in-your-face poke at African countries which had succeeded in kicking out racist Rhodesia (the future Zimbabwe from 1980) from the Games of Munich in 1972.

But it was an action opposed by virtually everybody else in New Zealand – the general public, the Olympic Committee and the government which nevertheless expressed its helplessness at stopping private citizens from going where they wanted to.

The Organisation of African Unity, the Africa Union’s predecessor, held its annual summit that year in Mauritius. After deliberations, and failing to arrive at a consensus, it left the decision on whether to boycott the Montreal Games to individual countries. Abraham Ordia, then president of the OAU’s now defunct Supreme Council for Sport in Africa, pounced on the decision – or lack of one.

DARK THREATS

He started issuing dark threats to the IOC that Africa was considering boycotting the Montreal Games if New Zealand was not barred from participating.

He did this in a creeping, confusing way – one day being intransigent, the next being completely conciliatory. He dragged out this process up to the opening of the Games on July 17, causing extreme anguish to Lord Killanin, the IOC’s president and his committee.

How it had become his decision to make on behalf of African countries was never clear. But he roamed the continent, beginning with the then so-called frontline states that bordered South Africa and Rhodesia and which bore the brunt of the two countries’ military incursions into their territories in pursuit of liberation fighters. Here, Ordia didn’t need to use his considerable political skills to get them to his side of things; he was preaching to the choir.

As Games opening ceremonies neared and nobody was sure what was going to happen, a news dispatch from Montreal described Ordia thus: “Ordia is an enigmatic figure. One day he appears at the IOC’s hotel headquarters in flowing blue Nigerian robes with traditional headdress, looking like a potentate. The next day he wears a sports jacket and a battered straw hat. He smiles and bows to sports officials from all over the world, shakes their hands and clasps them in a brotherly embrace. But what will he do next?”

In later years, I was to get a taste of Ordia when I interviewed him as part of a press conference at the VIP lounge of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as he waited to board his flight. He was washing down generous gulps of Pilsner beer as he fielded questions of which he had a habit of correcting before answering. He also compared his inquisitors: “You seem to know what you are talking about – you are better than him.”

He was intimidating and made you think twice before asking a question, lest half the answer becomes a dressing down. But searching his mind carefully, I came away with the conclusion that he was a good actor.

In Montreal, the man who bore the brunt of Ordia’s conflicting signals was, of course the grandfatherly Irish peer, Killanin. Of him it was reported:

“Killanin, who occupies a suite high up in a hotel in downtown Montreal, sat at a desk piled with documents. ‘I do not have a single file here on sports,’ he said sadly. ‘It’s all politics. I feel sorry for the athletes. They are the people we look after. We do not deal with governments, only with athletes and bodies representing athletes. We are pledged to resist political pressure.’”

All this was to no avail. On July 16, Kenya joined 16 other African nations in appending its signature to a letter to the IOC demanding the expulsion of New Zealand from the Games. The letter said the countries’ grievances at the “bare-faced” racism of New Zealand called for nothing less than its exclusion from the Olympics and that if this was not done, they would have no course of action other than to boycott the Games.

TURNED DOWN

The IOC turned down the demand and the die was cast.

Here at home, the Daily Nation wrote a blistering editorial comment lambasting the boycott. The piece was surprising in its vehemence because in those days, many Kenyans automatically fell into line whenever the government took a position. In the long comment published in its July 17, 1976 edition, the paper thundered: “The OAU left to individual member states the decision on whether or not to participate in the Games over the New Zealand affair.
The organisation failed to reach a consensus. Why, then, should the sporting representatives of African nations seek to resurrect an issue which their political peers failed to resolve. Nothing, we submit.

“Examples are legion of independent African nations having truck with countries which deal with apartheid South Africa. They are friendly with Britain, which has a massive investment stake in the racist nation. They are friendly with the USA, which has a huge interest in South Africa. Ditto in respect of Japan, West Germany….the list is almost endless.

Why do Africa’s so-called ambassadors make an issue of the New Zealand issue alone? Why are they going out of their way to wreck the Olympic hopes of hundreds of African athletes? They did not go to Montreal to play politics. If they fancy their prowess as politicians, they should return home and let the athletes get on with it.”

The African withdrawal wreaked havoc with the Games draw. The first Kenyan who would have gone into competition on the morning of the boycott was Kenya police marksman John Harun Mwau followed by two boxers in the afternoon and evening of the same day. As he packed bags ready to leave, Mwau said: “The time, I can afford to lose because I love the sport. But what about all the money I spent on ammunition?” At that time, reports put the sum a shooter spent on preparing for the Olympics at Sh2,000 per month – approximately Sh10,000 today.

Eight hundred metres star Mike Boit was a certain medallist. He looked forward to an epic duel with New Zealand’s John Walker. Out it went. He moaned: “Why did they have to wait until the last minute? This is terrible.” A host of other possible medallist like Charles Asati (400metres), Henry Rono (3,000 metres steeplechase), John Ng’eno (5,000 and 10,000 metres), Tecla Chemabwai (women’s 800 metres) and Rose Tata Muya (1500 metres) were similarly devastated.

At least three boxers were expected in the medal bracket. These were light flyweight Stephen Muchoki, bantamweight George Findo and light welterweight Philip Mathenge.

Muchoki told me: “We had cleared weigh-in and I was to go at 2pm while Findo was to have his first bout at 8pm. And then team manager Marsden Madoka came in and told us our country wasn’t participating. My first thought was to defy the order, box and then seek asylum in Canada. But on second thoughts, I thought of the seemingly almighty power of President Jomo Kenyatta and how ‘small’ I was and decided: ‘These people will use their power to come for me and have me locked up for the rest of my life.’ So I just accepted my fate.”

The downcast team was met at the airport by Housing Minister Zachary Onyonka, who hailed them as heroes. He told them: “Feel proud and walk with your heads held high for what you have achieved in Montreal has contributed to a noble cause of fighting injustice, colonialism and racism. Kenya will continue to spearhead the attack until all our brothers and sisters oppressed in southern Africa are completely free.”

The heroes wore looks of depression of Olympian proportions.