Kobayashi: The man who opened Japan’s doors to Kenyan athletes

Sunichi Kobayashi

Sunichi Kobayashi.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Kobayashi, a long-distance runner, arrived in Kenya equipped with just a rucksack, seeking adventure
  • Kobayashi died on Saturday and was interred on Tuesday at the Langata Cemetery

  • His family and friends will on Saturday plant 50 trees at the Ngong Forest Botanical Garden in his remembrance.

Kenya has lost one of the most invaluable human beings in sport speak, Sunichi Kobayashi, the jovial Japanese national who mentored Samuel Kamau Wanjiru, the youngest Olympic Games gold medallist for this country.

Kobayashi died on Saturday and was interred on Tuesday at the Langata Cemetery.

His family and friends will on Saturday plant 50 trees at the Ngong Forest Botanical Garden in his remembrance.

Kobayashi’s charges read like the who is who of our generation: Douglas Wakiihuri, Patrick Njiru, Thomas Onsano, Charles Kamathi, Julius Gitahi, Phillip Mosima, Isaac Macharia, John Njenga, David Miano, Thomas Onsano, Mary Wagaki and Esther Maina, just to mention a few of his orphans.

The first world championships marathon champion Douglas Wakiihuri was at hand to help the widow, Ikumi Kobayashi, rest the old man. Soon, he was joined by everybody who passed through the veteran’s hands.

Who is Sunichi Kobayashi?

It is very unfortunate that Athletics Kenya, the sporting organisation reputed to care for all, ignored this passing away parade of a great man.

And so did the leadership of the general central Kenya region where Kobayashi tapped a stellar cast of talent. History will judge some of them harshly.

Nonetheless, Kobayashi’s spirit lives.

Many years ago, young Kobayashi, a long-distance runner, arrived in Kenya equipped with just a rucksack seeking adventure.

He met Ikumi, and together they formed a lasting love story.

Kobayashi went to central Kenya to seek talent. One of his discoveries was world champion Wakiihuri and Wagaki, the latter 43rd in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the mother figure of marathon running in Kenya.

They blew the world apart.

Then marathon running was alien in Kenya.

Then Wakiihuri, totally unknown, obliterated the world in the 1987 World Championships in Athletics in Rome where the late President Daniel arap Moi was in the crowd and lifted Rungu ya Nyayo in appreciation.

Kobayashi had studied the trend of athletics in central Kenya, based on the efforts of Jeni Kenyatta and Mary Chege, the belles of athletics, then seen as high society sport.

He later met current Athletics Kenya treasurer David Miano to form one of the most successful sporting partnerships in Kenya’s history. Money was not the motivating factor.
All they needed was to put a smile on young, poor people’s faces. They churned talent with the efficiency of a machine gun.

Sample this: Eric Wainaina (1996 Atlanta Olympic Games bronze medallist); Julius Gitahi (Commonwealth Games 10,000 metres champion); Charles Kamathi (the first man to halt the invincible Haile Gebrselassie reign at the 2001 Edmonton World Championships) and, of course, Samuel Kamau Wanjiru.

The list is endless, and includes Thomas Onsano, Philip Mosima, Delilah Asiago and Stephen Mayaka.

Kobayashi’s defining moment was in 2008 when he delivered the youngest Olympic marathon champion, Wanjiru.

Kobayashi’s other great find was John Ngugi.

Ngugi was sickly, finishing 77th in the then highly competitive 1987 National Cross-country Championships.

An excited Kobayashi — whose photo mural remains a consistent reminder of our heritage etched at the World Athletics regional Development Centre at Kasarani Stadium — walked into the then Nation House, and proclaimed: “We have a champion. Forget number 1 to 10. Ngugi is strong like a horse,” my mentor Gishinga Njoroge recalls.

True, Ngugi went on to win the World Cross-country Championships five times!
He remains the last Kenyan to win the 5,000 metres Olympic gold medal 34 years ago. Kobayashi was also a strict disciplinarian.

He would send the Japan-based athletes back home if they misbehaved. The place he would host these young people was always at Nairobi’s Sagret Hotel, where he treated them with nyama choma and no alcohol.

Isaac Macharia, the most read Kenyan athlete, recalled how Kobayashi moulded Wanjiru.

“I didn’t race under his stable. But he made sure that Wanjiru would become a great champion,” he said.

Rally ace Patrick Njiru recalled how they became part of the Japanese community. “Kobayashi’s departure has left us sad. He was my friend and a great inspiration to many Kenyans,” said Njiru.

Miano is equally devastated.

A former school teacher who took in so many young people, like the Ngotho sisters Margaret and Jane, under his fold, Miano recalls how during his first meeting with Kobayashi in Japan they decided to fish for talent in the central and Nyanza regions.

“We in central region will forever remember and celebrate Kobayashi for having had a hand in the positive changes economically to many, many families that have family members as athletes in Japan,” says Miano.

“We started the programe with him in late 80s which eventual became a blessing to many in central region.”

Indeed, this was the precursor to a pot full of talent in an area so rich in topography, where national coaches Charles Mukora and John Velzian discovered the “Agony Hill” in Nyahururu that produced the 1968 and 1972 Olympic champions.

In 2018, during the National Athletics Championships at Nyayo National Stadium, a frail Kobayashi engaged me on the dying athletics activity in central region, and in his jocular mood invited me for the last photo.

“We take this last photo. Next time mimi iko kwa kitanda ya mortuary,” (let’s take this photo because next time I will be lying in the mortuary) in jest. And it has come to pass.

The last conversation

Wakiihuri remains one of Kobayashi’s most decorated athletes, having been honoured in Kenya with the “Order of the Grand Warrior of Kenya” and, just recently, in Japan with the “Order of the Rising Sun.”

“The Monday after Jamhuri Day last week, I went to see Kobayashi and showed him the two medals, thanking him for making me who I am today,” Wakiihuri reflected on Thursday.

“He told me among the athletes he has nurtured, I have done well and in fact he should thank me. That was the last conversation we had. I’m privileged to have made it in the nick of time to show him my gratitude.”

Wakiihuri, and many others believe Kobayashi should be honoured posthumously. For his desire was to see athletics grow across the country.

As Kobayashi once intimated to me, Kenya is a land of talent and our children are blessed only if sports can be evenly supported at grass-root level.

Kobayashi died aged 79. His vision lives on.

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