Why Hit Squad is now a pale shadow of former self

Nick Okoth (second left) celebrates victory with his coaches after winning his featherweight bout against Angola's Manuel Gomes Pedro of the ongoing Africa qualifiers for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games in Dakar, Senegal on February 25, 2020. PHOTO | DUNCAN KURIA |

What you need to know:

  • CS Amina should help BAK acquire a foreign tactician preferably from Cuba which has the most successful coaches in the world.
  • Kenya has abundant talent. I see no reason why we shouldn’t produce more Wangilas, Bilalis and Waruinges.

Kenya’s “Hit Squad” which participated in the Africa Olympic boxing qualifiers in Dakar, Senegal, on February 20 to 28 returned home with only two pugilists making the cut.

Team captain featherweight Nick Okoth and female boxer flyweight Christine Ongare both pounded their way into the Africa squad of 37 which will be heading to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games scheduled for July 24 to August 9.

Eight male boxers and five females boxers were accompanied by six coaches to the Senegal qualifiers.

Let’s admit it, Kenyan boxing is in bad shape. Boxing fans are not impressed by the poor performances. They are wondering what happened to the once mighty “Hit Squad”.

The glorious era of Kenyan boxing ended in the early 90s. Mismanagement, wrangles and other controversies crept into the sport and the once dreaded “Hit Squad” has now become a shell of its former self.

In the past, Kenya featured in major competitions such as the Africa Boxing Championships, the Commonwealth Games, the All Africa Games and performed remarkable well. Our boxers were top ranked by the International Boxing Association (AIBA).

The question begs: “What went wrong?

The Sports docket has had various Cabinet secretaries who usually came up with ambitious proposals on how to improve standards. New CSs promise to bring changes. But sooner or later, things remain the same and no action is taken against individuals who mess up sports.

In Senegal, boxing enthusiasts expected at least five male pugilists to qualify for the Summer Games after Kenya was represented by three boxers at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in Brazil.

Tokyo is significant for Kenya. It is where pioneer athlete Wilson Kiprugut Chuma brought home Kenya’s first Olympic medal - a bronze - in the 880 yards (800 metres) in 1964, a year after Kenya attained Independence.

In that year, boxer Philip Waruinge made his debut at the Tokyo Olympics but lost in the pre-quarter finals. Despite losing, Waruinge left with a resolve to up his game. He improved at the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Kingston, Jamaica, where he won gold in the featherweight category.

Waruinge successfully defended the title in 1970 in Edinburg, Scotland. His greatest moment came in Mexico City, Mexico, in 1968 when he won Kenya’s first Olympic boxing medal - bronze- and also the Val Baker Trophy.

Waruinge‘s feat inspired other boxers among them the diminutive light flyweight Stephen Muchoki. He won two Commonwealth Games gold medals in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1974 and Edmonton, Canada in 1978, respectively.

Muchoki also won a silver medal in the inaugural World Boxing Championship in Havana, Cuba, in 1974. He added a second gold during the second edition of the World Championship in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1978. Waruinge turned professional in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1979.

That was a moment of pride for Kenya. The country flourished when Major (Rtd) Marsden Madoka was the boxing chief. However, after Madoka’s departure after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics Games in the US, things have been less rosy.

A long list of issues have affected Kenyan boxing ranging from poor selection of the national team, lack of incentives for boxers leading to low morale, lack of sponsors and inadequate qualified coaches and managers.

Incumbent Boxing Association of Kenya (BAK) president Anthony Otieno Ombok, popularly known as “Jamal”, who was elected last June, should unite officials and embrace even those who opposed him during the election.

BAK needs to invite foreign teams to spar with Kenyan boxers so that they can improve their skills. Dormant national and regional tournaments should be revived among them Kenya Open, Inter-Cities (Nairobi vs Kampala), the two-leg Brunners/ Urafiki Trophy contest featuring Kenya’s “Hit Squad” vs Uganda’s “Bombers” at Nairobi Charter Hall/ or at the Kasarani basketball gymnasium and Kampala’s Lugogo Indoor Stadium.

For Kenya to return to its glorious past, we need to start nurturing a new crop of boxers for future competitions such as the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, the next Olympics Games in 2024, and the next All African Games in 2022 in Bamako, Mali.

Looking at the composition of the present “Hit Squad”, both male and female pugilists, one is inclined feel that some are past their peak. CS Amina should put her foot down and ensure that boxing and other sports disciplines’ management are streamlined.

Kenya’s “Hit Squad”, once regarded as the flag-bearer of Africa, has continued to struggle with no remedy in sight. The last time Kenya won an Olympic boxing medal was in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea.

The late Robert Wangila entered his name in the annals history when he won Africa’s first gold medal in a three-round KO win over Frenchman Laurent Boudouni in the welterweight final while middleweight Christopher “Bingwa” Sande brought home a bronze medal. Stylish featherweight Waruinge won a silver medal in the 1972 Munich Games and flyweight Ibrahim “Surf’ Bilali clinched bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

Over three decades later after the feat, Kenyan boxers have not emulated these great pugilists. This is despite appearing in seven Olympic Games that include the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the 2004 Athens Olympics, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2012 London Olympics and the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The two Kenyan boxers who have qualified for the Tokyo 2020 Games Okoth and Ongare carry a heavy burden on their shoulders. They require total commitment and focus if they are to win honours.

In 2004, the BAK had an opportunity of sending two boxers bantamweight David Munyasia and light flyweight Suleiman Bilali, a younger brother of Ibrahim, for a three-week training in Havana, Cuba, through an Olympic Solidarity Movement.

It was good motivation to the duo who trained with experienced Cubans. It is worth mentioning that two boxers were accompanied by coach-cum- manager Albert Matito.

In 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta made a three- day official visit to Cuba and signed a bilateral agreement pertaining to development of various sectors among them sports.

The trip to Cuba came at the right time for Kenyan sportsmen/sportswomen, and particularly boxers, who were badly in need of technical ring experts.

Boxing has dwindled over the years because the BAK has not been working with major stakeholders such as Kenya Prisons, Kenya Police and Kenya Defence Forces and parastatals which for long provided influential officials to run the association. They helped to spread boxing to almost every corner of the country.

It is under the able leadership of Madoka that we had a solid BAK executive committee comprising Stanley Wachanga, Harrison Kilonzo, Gen (Rtd) Peter Waweru, Victor Cardozo, John Roberts, James Ndisi, Victor Mbaji, and Mukuru Mukundi whose unity brought great success in boxing.

During those great years, Kenya had qualified referees of AIBA status such as Humphrey Wamba, Captain Trevor Hill, Cornelius Monteiro, Henry Omollo, Elisha Abetsi, Joseph Saoke, Isaac Mbote, Joseph Mwangi Muthoga and the late Richard Mwangi.

Another missing aspect in Kenya‘s “Hit Squad”s technical bench is lack of an able head coach who commands respect. Veteran Peter Mwarangu had charismatic leadership that earned him respect among fellow tacticians that included Charles Anjimbi, Eddie “Papa”Musi, Patrick “Madd” Okoth, Peter Dula, Peter Morris, and Charles Longisa.

Coaches supported one another from club level. This yielded good results. During the 4th All Africa Games held in Nairobi in 1987, Kenya bagged a record eight gold medals.

For Kenya to regain its lost glory, we require sacrifice, dedication, commitment, spiritual strength and full support from the government.

CS Amina should help BAK acquire a foreign tactician preferably from Cuba which has the most successful coaches in the world.

Kenya has abundant talent. I see no reason why we shouldn’t produce more Wangilas, Bilalis and Waruinges.

The writer is former NMG Chief Sports Reporter and former Kenya Sports Journalist of the Year award Winner [email protected]

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