Pioneer champion who ran barefoot

Kenya’s pioneer athlete Nyantika Maiyoro feeds his cow at his Borabu Settlement Scheme home in this file photo taken on July 27, 2012.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Half a century after storming the short distance circuit, when he introduced Kenya to global athletics competitions and won medals for his name to be cast in the historians’ indelible ink, Nyandika Maiyoro has little to show for struggle

Journalists patronised him “the popular Black Jack from Kenya”. Others called him “the lap monkey”.

The first Kenyan in global sports competitions, Nyandika Maiyoro, was the Black Man’s experiment of ‘mysterious’ success, introducing the country to the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.

More than half a century after he stormed the short distance circuit, however, Nyandika is no match for his sick calf: he no longer enjoys the charming omniscience of youth.

At his ageing home in the Borabu Settlement Scheme in Nyansiongo, Kisii, where he lives with his second wife and many grandchildren, old age, poverty, obscurity and despair are fast catching up with him.

“Unlike when I was young, I now only attract a few visitors – mainly journalists, historians and researchers,” the old man shares sentimental wailings of the past.

Nyandika was among the first Black Africans to compete and finish a race in the Olympic Games. He captained the pioneer Kenyan athletics team that included Arere Anentia, Seraphino Antao, Kipatarum Ketta, Kanutu Sumu and Joseph Lesai.

Recruited at 16 by the Colonial Sports Officer Archie Evans and Senior Chief Musa Nyandusi to participate in the East African Championship in 1948, Nyandika won every race that he competed in.

Started race several laps late

In 1952 he participated in the Empire Games in Antananarivo, Madagascar, starting the 5,000 metres race several laps late since he could not understand the English, French and Portuguese languages used to call the participants.

He nonetheless won the race.

The fascination with the then 22-year-old runner burgeoned in London’s White City at the 1954 Amateur Association Championship when he stunned over 30,000 people by finishing fourth.

Kenya made a debut in the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada, that year thanks to Nyandika, who clocked 13 minutes, 43.8 seconds to finish fourth.

He then made another debut for Kenya at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, participating in the 1,500m and 5,000m. He was seventh in the 1,500m.

The British Press declared Nyandika’s performance a defining moment in the history of athletics, saying it was “extremely unusual” since Africans possessed “great speed but little stamina”.

The Editor of British track magazine Athletics Weekly wrote: “Never again shall we nurse the idea that the coloured races are not good at nothing beyond a mile.”

Athletics World reported that his performance was a revelation of “a physical ability in the greatest Caucasian traditions” – an aberration of ‘the African’.

The liberal Manchester Guardian declared that the 1954 event was “made confusing” by Nyandika’s “ludicrously fast pace” while The Times of London stated that it was “inevitable” that he would be overtaken by the white runners.

One of the world’s most respected athletics writers, Jourdy McWhirter, patronisingly referred to Nyandika as “the popular Black Jack from Kenya”, writing that Nyandika’s was a “one half-miler who built up a big lead on the first lap, only to fall away on the second. He is only a one-lap wonder.”

American journalist Dick Bank labelled the barefoot runner “the most stupid tactician of all time” who had “such an exaggerated opinion of himself that he (thought he could) outsprint everyone.”

Nyandika says the insults never slowed him down, instead fuelling his passion to win. He remembers hearing the commentator at the Melbourne Olympics: “The race is almost over and oh my God I see a black man … he his closing the gap ... oh no, he is barefooted ... he looks like a mad man.”

“Even if you call me nyani (monkey) today I won’t mind,” Nyandika says, laughing.

In 1958, he ran in the British Empire Games and the Commonwealths in Cardiff, finishing 12th in the 5,000m. Two years later, he was 6th at the Rome Olympics in a personal best 13:53.2.

That year he was voted Sportsman of the Year in a contest ran by Nation Newspapers, currently Nation Media Group.

As a boy, the famed rabbit and deer hunter used to run 10 kilometres daily from his home in Kiogoro, Kisii, to Nyakegogi Primary School before he dropped out in Standard Five to concentrate in running. He won virtually all events he participated in – such as 3 miles (5,000m) and 1 mile (1,500m), and later competed in Kenya Sports Championship.

The colonial officers employed him as a veterinary scout. He would later become the caretaker of Kisii Municipal Stadium, retiring in 2002.

Won several distinguished awards

Nyandika has also won several distinguished awards, among them Member of British Empire (MBE), by the Queen of England, in 1961; the Silver Star (SS) medal by retired President Moi in 1987 and the Distinguished Service Award by Kenyatta University in 1995.

Sadly, Nyandika’s immense success is contrasted by the humiliation and suffering meted out to him in old age – and by his countrymen.

A house the colonial masters built for Nyandika in Kisii Municipal Stadium in appreciation of his running is the subject of a tussle, Kisii Municipal Council having evicted him four years ago. Despite Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s order to the Nyanza Provincial Commissioner at the stadium last year to ensure Nyandika got “his” house back, he has not.

John Bale, in the book Sports Stars: The Cultural Politics of Sporting Celebrity argues that the athleticism of Nyandika and Kipchoge Keino boosted not only the newly independent Kenya but also the emerging world of post-colonial Africa.

The only well known “resistance act” in track and field is during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when black athletes gave a ‘Black Power’ salute after they won the awards. Mexico also became “the unfair games” after “Kenyans from high altitude areas had unfair advantage”.