Barnaba Korir: Walking the talk

Barnaba Korir

Athletics Kenya youth and development director Barnaba Korir during a media briefing  on the Africa Athletics Under-18 and Under-20 Championships trials starting Friday at the Nyayo National Stadium at Riadha House, Nairobi on April 4, 2023.

Photo credit: Ayumba Ayodi | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Korir has shown his Midas touch of attracting top sponsorship and a knack for presiding over major athletics meets as Belgium-based Golazo sports and entertainment consulting firm’s point man in Kenya
  • He is of the opinion that luck is on Kenya’s side, and the world still believes in the purity of athletics against the background of cheating which has tainted the image of the sport internationally

Reflecting on the 2024 athletics calendar, Barnaba Korir, the man behind the success of three international athletics meetings in Kenya, shook his head and confirmed that indeed it is a long road to Nairobi, the ultimate destination of international sports events hosting in Africa.

His journey of leaving the American dream, has hugely influenced his professional life.

There was nowhere else in Kenya he intended to make a mark in sports management and marketing than Nairobi.

Educated in America, the Kapsabet-born Korir returned to Kenya over 20 years ago with an economics degree from Iowa State University, majoring in Finance and quickly got a job as an internal auditor at the Kenyatta National Hospital.

But his restive nature took him to athletics, a discipline that earned him a scholarship to study in the United States in 1981.

He wanted to do things differently, and identified the commercial potential of athletics in the same mould as Mwangi Muthee and the late marketing stalwart Sharad Ghai achieved in rugby and cricket, with in-coming and out-going tours the norm rather than the exception.

So, Korir needed a base and legitimacy. He teamed up with veterans John Mwithiga, Robert Ouko, Dan Omwanza, Florence Theuri, Yours Truly, Gideon Nyangechi and George Kariuki to be elected chairman of the Nairobi branch of Athletics Kenya in 2008.

He was later elected to the National Executive Committee of Athletics Kenya where he landed the substantive post of Youth Development Sub-committee Chairman in 2017. His first major assignment was offering every potential young runner the opportunity of vying for limited slots in the national team, with the 2017 Nairobi World Athletics Under-18 Championships serving as an apt testing ground into the big league.

He has shown his Midas touch of attracting top sponsorship and a knack for presiding over major athletics meets as Belgium-based Golazo sports and entertainment consulting firm’s point man in Kenya.

Nairobi City Marathon

From left, Nairobi City Marathon Director Ibrahim Hussein, LOC Chairman Jackson Tuwei and CEO Barnaba Korir during the race’s press conference at Nyayo National Stadium, Nairobi on June 28, 2023.

Photo credit: Kennedy Amungo | Nation Media Group

As the chairman of the AK Youth Development Committee, Korir said his target is young people and a new dawn for the sport after convincing Athletics Kenya to bid for the Nairobi Kip Keino Classic Continental Tour leg and Sirikwa Cross Country in Eldoret, the only other two annual international events in Kenya after the WRC Safari Rally and Magical Kenya Open European Tour.

He knew where the money and expertise was. 

Korir has teamed up with Golazo, which specializes in athletics, cycling, tennis and musical concerts, to organise the three international athletics events in Kenya. 

“It’s the only way to go, inviting athletes from other countries to grow athletics,” said Korir in reference to the Kip Keino Classic which now ranks as one of the most attended in the international World Athletics circuit, plus the Nairobi City Marathon which is heavily funded by the government.

The Kip Keino Classic was first held in 2020 soon after the successful hosting of the World Athletics Under-20 Championships under a partially closed-up country under the Covid-19 containment measures, and one Ferdinand Omanyala immediately lifted the profile of the meeting to dizzying heights. 

He finished second behind American champion Trayvon Bromell in 9:77 seconds, a new African record in a field that also included multiple world champion, Justin Gatlin. 

“Omanyala has been a blessing to the meeting since 2021,” says Korir.

Omanyala brought the house down at last year’s meet when he posted 9:84 seconds ahead of Olympic silver medallist Fred Kerley of the United States. 

Kenyan President William Ruto (second right) congratulates Kenya's Ferdinand Omanyala (centre) after winning the 100m men's event as Kenya opposition leader Raila Odinga (second left), Kenyan Prime Cabinet Secretary Musalia Mudavadi (left) and Kenyan Sports Cabinet Secretary Ababu Namwamba look on during the fourth edition of the Kip Keino Classic Continental Tour at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi, on May 13, 2023.

Photo credit: AFP

He beat Americans Bracy Williams (200m Olympics silver medallist) and Ken Bednarek this year to cement his superstar status at the Kip Keino Classic.

The second success pillar of the Kip Keino Classic is Absa Bank which has continued to grow the meeting with corporate sponsorship, a gesture Korir said they are growing for mutually beneficial long-term association.

He is of the opinion that luck is on Kenya’s side, and the world still believes in the purity of athletics against the background of cheating which has tainted the image of the sport internationally.

There is still a lingering doubt about the sincerity of Kenyans resulting in the athletes being the most tested in the world.

From left: Absa Kip Keino Classic Meet Director Barnaba Korir, Commonwealth Games 800 metres champion Mary Moraa, Sports Principal Secretary Jonathan Mueke, 400m hurdles runner Wiseman Were and Absa Bank Kenya Chief Executive Officer Abdi Mohamed pose for photos with a dummy cheque of Sh60 million during the launch of the 2023 Absa Kip Keino Classic at Safari Park Hotel, Nairobi on May 5, 2023.

Photo credit: Sila Kiplagat | Nation Media Group

This responsibility of raising clean athletes is shared by Athletics Kenya (AK), the Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (Adak) and the government.

“We are all grateful to President William Ruto for his personal involvement in engaging World Athletics and Wada to save Kenya from being banned on allegation of widespread doping and pledged financial support to fight this menace,” he said.

“I feel we are on the right track after registering zero (positive doping tests) results in the last two editions of World Athletics age group competition, Kip Keino Classic and Sirikwa Cross,” said Korir who went to Sironoi Primary School before joining Kapsabet Boys High School where he was merely a fun runner.

“My choice of becoming an athlete was coincidental and the family influence of my brother Amos who had earned an athletics scholarship to study in the US,” recalls Korir. 

“I was not an athlete in school but when my brother started writing letters back home about his stay in the US, I got interested.

“Amos told me that all I needed was proof that I was an athlete and that is how I managed to compete in the national secondary schools’ trials in Nakuru in 1981, did well and applied for a scholarship at Iowa State University immediately after I finished my ‘A’ levels at Kapsabet Boys.”

Success by Kenyans on track and field in the 1960s and 1970s attracted interest from foreign journalists and in turn coaches in American universities.

Another great influencer to this interest was Mal Whitfield, the 1948/52 Olympics 800 metres champion who worked for 47 years as coach, goodwill ambassador and athletics mentor in Africa, mostly Kenya, Uganda and Egypt on behalf of the United States Information Service.

He made many friends in Kenya and was instrumental in bringing virtually all great US sports celebrities or those associated with American companies like Mohamad Ali and Pele. 

He engineered airlifts of African athletes, many of them Kenyans like Samson Kimombwa, Henry Rono, Ruth Waithera, Amos Korir, Mike Boit and Mike Kosgei to the USA to run and study.

Barnaba Korir

Athletics Kenya Youth Development Director Barnaba Korir speaks during a consultative forum with athletes in Nyahururu on November 12, 2021.

Photo credit: Pool |

Korir arrived in the United States to meet a well-established Kenyan fraternity. 

“The first person who made a big impression on me then and throughout my life was Bill Bergan, our coach and Godfather,” he remembers. “In our team were Yobes Ondieki (the 1991 10,000 metres world champion), Dr Joseph Kipsang, James Moi, Moses Kiyai -- both great long and triple jumpers -- and Jona Koech, a brother to Peter Koech, the 1988 Seoul Olympics 3,000m steeplechase silver medallist and former world record holder.”

Other Kenyans of this generation who made a mark are Patrick Sang (Olympics silver medallist), who nurtured Eliud Kipchoge, Paul Ereng (800m Olympics champion), Julius Kariuki (3,000m Olympic champion) and Peter Rono (1,500m Olympic champion). 

Bergan, who died on November 22 last year, was two-time NCAA championship-winning head coach and founder and CEO of Arnes, Iowa-based Championship Productions which produces training and coaching videos for amateur athletes.

Korir left an impressive record at Iowa State University and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2019.
He made the All-American (finishing top five) twice in cross country and holds a personal best of 13min 25sec in 5,000m.

He also won six Big Eight Championships, including the league cross-country title as a junior and senior; captured three titles at the 1988 Big Eight Indoor Championships to earn the Most Outstanding Athlete award at the meet. 

He is a Member of six Big Eight championships teams in track and field and cross country and a Two-time Drake Relays champion.

He became friends with Bob Verbeeck of Belgium who competed in the Olympics 5,000m.

Verbeeck is the founder and CEO of Golazo with Korir appointed partner and point man of the company’s operations in Kenya in athletics.

“Bob and I have shared the same passion since our youth and I am happy Golazo has extended its portfolio in Kenya. 

“I want to thank Athletics Kenya President Jack Tuwei and the executive committee for settling on us to grow the Kip Keino Classic, Sirikiwa Cross Country Championships and the Nairobi City Marathon races,” said Korir, who is also the executive member of Youth Development in the National Olympic Committee of Kenya and Steering Committee Member of ADAK.

He concludes that the government’s incentives programme, including better allowances for athletes and coaches, is the way to go.