Kenya's 60 years of sports excellence

A collection of past and present Kenyan sports stars.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • From Kipchoge Keino and Joe Kadenge, to Maurice Odumbe and Eliud Kipchoge, Kenya is a global giant in sports

Kenyan athletes are the most famous on the global stage, although footballers, cricketers, boxers and tennis stars have equally contributed to the nation’s sporting excellence.

Kipchoge Keino, the father of Kenyan athletics, became the face of Kenyan sports and the flag-bearer among the second generation of local athletes who conquered the world.

Hardly four years after the young nation had gained Independence from British colonial rule, Keino led a band of athletes in storming the exclusive club of world-beaters at the very top.

The then young policeman led Kenyans to the pedestal in Mexico City in 1968 Olympics to announce to the sporting world that Kenya had a rich talent.

Kip won gold in the 1,500m and a silver in 5,000m behind Ben Jipcho, who took gold, Naftali Temu, who won gold in the 10,000m and Amos Biwott, won gold too in 3,000m steeplechase.

What made his career even more remarkable was that four years later, at the Munich Olympic Games, he again won gold in the 3,000m steeplechase and silver in the 1,500m.

During these very games, best remembered for the ordeal Israeli athletes went through at the hands of a band of terrorists, Kenyan sprinters won gold in the 4x400m, where Julius Sang anchored the team of Robert Ouko, Naftali Nyamao and Charles Asati to victory.

From that performance, Kenyan athletes have not relented in riding roughshod over competitors in subsequent Olympics, World Championships, Commonwealth Games and African Games. Any athletics competition at the continental or global level is a story of Kenyan dominance.

Amidst reports of doping, which affected many athletes, Kenyans have dominated lucrative city marathon races from Tokyo, to London, New York City, Boston and Chicago. The icing on the cake was double Olympics marathon champion Eliud Kipchoge’s 2:01:09 world record in Berlin last year.

While footballers of the generation of Joe Kadenge, John Nyawanga and Bobby Oronge dominated the East African region in the 1960s, Harambee Stars produced a stellar performance in 1987 that saw them win silver behind Egypt at the fourth All African Games in Nairobi, the same year Gor Mahia won the continental Nelson Mandela Cup after beating Tunisia’s Esperance Sportiff.

But if the sporting world thought that was the best our footballers could do, they would be proved wrong as they watched McDonald Mariga break the glass ceiling when he won the world’s most prestigious football title, European Champions League, with Internazionale of Milan, who beat Bayern Munich in the 2010 final.

His younger brother, Victor Wanyama, also blazed the trail in his own illustrious career, becoming the first Kenyan to play in the lucrative English Premier League, where he starred for Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur.

He is now playing for CF Montreal in Canada. Divock Origi, who played for Liverpool and now plays for Serie A side AC Milan, is a Belgian national, but his father, Mike Okoth Origi, was a well-known Kenyan footballer who turned out for Shabana and the national team. Such is the rich football talent that abounds in Kenya.

What other sports have Kenyans stunned the world in? If the Wakhungu sisters, Judy and Susan, Kush Bhadhwaj, Aasif Karim and Paul Wekesa and his siblings exposed Kenya’s hidden talent in tennis during the 1987 All Africa Games, Angela Okutoyi raised the bar much higher in June last year, becoming the first Kenyan to win a grand slam title in the girls’ juniors at a Wimbledon event, partnering with Rose Marie Nijkamp.

The young Okutoyi also won a girls’ junior singles Grand Slam match in last year’s Australian Open.

Okutoyi’s performance in Wimbledon saw Kenya’s High Commissioner to the Court of St James, Manoah Esipisu, escort her to the Heathrow Airport on her plane back to Kenya, a rare but very deserved honour from a Kenyan diplomat abroad.

Things have changed quite a bit in Kenyan cricket, but we cannot forget the 1996 ICC World Cup, where Maurice Odumbe, Steve Tikolo and Aasif Karim led the so-called Kenyan Dark Horses to a spectacular victory over the mighty West Indies with Brian Lara, Curtly Ambrose, Ian Bishop and Roger Harper, among others, in the line-up in the Indian sub-continent. Kenyans mercilessly annihilated the Windies, whom they beat by 73 runs, with Odumbe emerging the player of the match.

That performance stunned the cricket world. Odumbe and Tikolo went on to play professional cricket in England and Wales against some of the best players from around the world.

In boxing, the late Robert Wangila won gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games and proceeded to the American professional circuit under the Top Rank Inc stable. Since then, no Kenyan pugilist has gone that far.

This could be attributed to stringent qualification rules by the world’s boxing ruling body, where boxers undergo many qualification competitions leading up to the Olympic Games.

In motorsports, Patrick Njiru and Ian Duncan followed in the footsteps of rallying champions Joginder Singh (Simba wa Kenya), Shekhar Mehta and Vic Preston Junior. Kenyans competed against the world-rated drivers like Bjorn Waldegaard but were somehow disadvantaged by lack of technical support, considering that they competed against teams with helicopters and a slew of vehicles as back-up.

The World Rally Championships circuit is back in Kenya and a lot can be expected from the local crews.

A majority of Kenyan sportsmen are still winning fair and square, save for a few incidents of career-breaking overindulgence in alcohol and marijuana. But cases of doping and other performance-enhancing substances are worrying observers.

Unfortunately, such cases have badly affected the good things that happened to Kenyan sport, especially when Olympic gold medallists were stripped of their wins after it emerged that they had failed doping tests.

Whenever they won marathon races abroad, whether in Boston, New York City, London, Berlin or Tokyo, the first question asked is ‘how clean are they?’ But thanks to the reputation of the older generation, who believed in training hard and winning easy – the generation of John Ngugi, Moses Kiptanui, Paul Ereng, Peter Rono, Julius Kariuki, Yobes Ondieki, Paul Tergat, Daniel Komen, Wilfred Bungei, Pamela Jelimo, Janeth Jepkosgei, Tegla Lorupe, Catherine Ndereba and the late Samuel Wanjiru – there is evidence that Kenyans can win clean. In fact, a large majority of Kenyan athletes are clean.

For rugby enthusiasts, the 2023 calendar has been a contradiction of itself. On one hand, Kenya’s oldest rugby club, Nondescripts, turns a century old, evidence that the sport and its components – clubs, partners, players and fans – can achieve some form of immortality.

On the other hand, the seven-a-side team, Shujaa, has lost core status in the World Rugby Sevens Series after 23 years in the elite league.

For the shorter version of the game, only participating in the Olympics and Sevens World Cup can bring more shine to players and their nations than competing as a core team in the series. For many players, playing in the series has opened doors that may have remained shut.

The Enterprise Cup, which was started by a team of British sailors,  is the oldest rugby tournament in East Africa.

The first event was held in 1930, the same year Impala RFC was formed. Despite its last cup win being in 1998, Nondescripts is the tournament’s most successful club, with 25 titles.

Kenya hosted her first international match in 1954, when the national team took on Tanganyika. A year later, the British Lions, a combination of the best players in England, Scotland and Wales, visited Kenya and took on a combined East African side dubbed the Tuskers. The Lions won 61-0.

In 1977, the University of Nairobi’s Mean Machine became the first club for and by indigenous Kenyans to compete in the Kenya Cup, and it won the league title in its inaugural appearance. The club produced many legends such as Eddie Rombo, Cliff Mukulu and Sammy Khakame.

A year later, players who graduated from the university formed Mwamba RFC, which has grown into one of the best rugby academies in the country, producing some of the best athletes who played in the national seven-a-side team in its golden years, including Collins Injera, Humphrey Kayange and Lavin Asego.

In 1999, Kenya was invited to the Dubai Sevens, the first leg of the Sevens Series, in which it has participated every year since. The team won the Singapore Sevens in 2016 after previous falls in tournament finals.

The team has also competed in the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and World Cup.

The national 15-a-side team also boasts some glory, winning the Africa Cup multiple times and is currently ranked third in Africa after South Africa and Namibia.

The local rugby scene has grown immensely and seen a change in fate for traditional powerhouses like Nondescripts, Kenya Harlequin, Impala and Mean Machine.