Here is why the Rio Olympics debacle will go unpunished


Members of the Kenya delegation enter the stadium during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. PHOTO | LEON NEAL |  AFP

Members of the Kenya delegation enter the stadium during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. PHOTO | LEON NEAL | AFP


By Roy Gachuhi


I burst out laughing when I read a statement by Government Spokesman Eric Kiraithe that Kenya will launch investigations into the management of the Rio Olympics.


“The mishaps in this Olympic season have been a disservice to our athletes and the legacy they have built over the years,” he said.


I was a reporter in 1987 when an American conman named Dick Berg, working in cahoots with senior government officials, cleaned out the Nairobi All-Africa Games treasury before making good his escape before the Games started. A national uproar ensued. Henry Kosgey was the minister in charge of sports then and demands were made for his resignation in addition to him being made to account for the lost public money.


But it was like a fire of dry banana leaves; it burned bright and noisily and then went off quickly. You couldn’t heat a sufuria of water with it. Kosgey went on to occupy one senior government position after another for many years and is now comfortably retired.


Ninteen eighty-seven established the standard by which sports officials fleece and mismanage the teams in their care. It also wrote the manual for diffusing the public anger that follows. Summarised to its minimum, the manual calls for an investigation whose results are to be released as quietly as possible and only long after the dust of the Games has settled.


Kiraithe has just pulled that manual from the shelf and read from it, hence the announcement of an investigation.


Here are the reasons why there will be no accounting for the managerial mess in Rio and why athletes can expect to endure the hardships they have had to put up with here four years from now in Tokyo in 2020 just as they did in London in 2012 and at many world and continental Games since 1987:


The National Olympic Committee Kenya (NOC-K) is an old boys club: Amid the storm swirling around them, the people who run our national Olympic committee can calmly look each other in the eye and utter that uniquely Kenyan saying whose simplicity belies the profoundness of the meaning it conveys: “tumetoka mbali” (literary translated “we have come a long way together.”)


This is a statement of hostility and exclusion towards perceived interlopers. The man who heads NOC-K is Kipchoge Keino, 76 years old. He has been in and around that place for longer than the lives of more than 70 per cent of Kenyans. He embodies NOC-K which inducts new blood through a system of patronage.


Old systems are conservative by nature. They abhor change. They are also deeply suspicious of anything that doesn’t follow the established order.


Those whiz kids who are ready to manage the superpower that is Kenya’s athletics with innovations M-Pesa style, are up against a granite wall.


Friends in high places: Among the visitors who are here to give Team Kenya motisha (morale) are Deputy President William Ruto and Sports Cabinet Secretary Hassan Wario. They have been well received and briefed by the team leaders who compensate their shortfall in managerial skill with a sixth sense about who to please and who to ignore.


They follow Mbiyu Koinange’s dictum: I don’t need the votes of thousands of Kenyans. I need just two votes – Mzee Kenyatta’s and Mama Ngina’s. He knew what he was talking about; he was elected unopposed as Kiambaa MP until Mzee Kenyatta died. (Remember him? He was President Jomo Kenyatta’s constant companion and Minister for State about whom it was said that he couldn’t share a bed with his wife for fear of dreaming loudly and unintentionally disclosing state secrets.)


Athletics is not a team sport. Team Kenya, in athletics terms, is a misnomer.


There is no such team, just a collection of people who have conditioned themselves individually to reach the level they have. They follow their personal coaches’ training regimes. For this reason, no matter the ineptitude of NOC-K or its affiliate, Athletics Kenya, they will continue to win.


And NOC-K will continue to bask in that glory and can poke Kenyans in the eye with the question: see how many medals we have won? NOC-K may be more an obstacle than a help, but by their personal effort, the winning athletes will always douse the fire coming its way.


The conspiracy of silence. Whoever has dealt with sports officials knows how hard they work not just to get in but to stay there when it comes to big competitions like the Olympics. They network hard. And the closer they come to the inside the more careful they become with anything that can hurt their chances.


They develop a superhuman buoyancy not to break the egg shells they walk on.


They see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil against the order. They can endure any hardship for as long as there is hope of being in the system’s inside. They only turn against it when they fall off the wagon.


Everything is political. What process would clean the National Olympic Committee of Kenya without provoking a severe political backlash? Everything in Kenya is political. More accurately, everything is about tribal positioning. Our tribe-based political parties have sacred turfs and in those spaces, they do as they please.


There are many Kenyans who would like to see NOC-K transformed and run as a meritocracy to reflect the super power status of Kenya as an athletics nation. For as long as our politics are what they are, it will never happen.


History: Kenya does not punish high officials who commit crimes of any kind against the people. It punishes pick-pockets, chicken thieves and house helps.


Those are the ones who populate its teeming jails. The senior people just go through a razzmatazz of public theatre – Oh, step aside, oh, investigations must be carried out, oh, our people are being finished, oh, this, oh that. But nobody goes to jail. It won’t start with Rio 2016.


So there you have it. I rest my case.


******** ********


Brazil are playing Germany in the Olympic football final at the Maracana Stadium on Saturday. Let us pray.


Roy Gachuhi is in Rio de Janeiro as a writer-in-residence with Agencia Publica, an independent Brazilian investigative journalism news agency.