Petty politicking hampers athletes

Letter from Nairobi
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The Independent Online

Allegations of corruption, court tussles, back-room deals and full-frontal press assaults are the bread and butter of everyday political life in Kenya. But that malaise, largely responsible for the economy's woeful state, has seeped into the athletics fraternity this summer in the run-up to the Olympic Games.

Allegations of corruption, court tussles, back-room deals and full-frontal press assaults are the bread and butter of everyday political life in Kenya. But that malaise, largely responsible for the economy's woeful state, has seeped into the athletics fraternity this summer in the run-up to the Olympic Games.

A series of unseemly selection squabbles, personality clashes and dirty tricks allegations have seen some of Kenya's top athletes spend more time limbering up for legal suits than for the Games themselves. It left a sour taste in the Olympic squad as it touched down in Adelaide last Thursday.

They had left their national 400 metres hurdling champion, Erick Keter, sitting glumly in the departures lounge of Nairobi airport. Keter - who took the bronze in last September's All-Africa Games - had been ignored by Olympic selectors for his alleged poor form and for finishing fourth in the national heats in July.

In a now common tactic for Kenyan athletes, Keter ignored internal arbitration procedures and went straight to court. The judge agreed his exclusion had been "malicious and fraudulent" and ordered he should be included in the squad. Nevertheless national athletics officials refused him a seat at the airport, and the plane took off without him.

The Keter affair is not the only controversy - or court appearance - to dog the embattled Kenya Amateur Athletics Association this summer.

Under the stewardship of the chairman, Isaiah Kipligat, the KAAA has rarely been out of the headlines in a series of contests characterised by the ferocity, if not the spirit, of Olympic competition.

In July Kenya's first-choice marathon team - composed of the twice Boston marathon winner Moses Tanui, current Boston champion Elijah Lagat and Tokyo marathon champion Japheth Kosgei - was unexpectedly dropped and replaced with three other runners.

The runners had been under observation by a "panel of experts", KAAA officials explained, who found they had "become complacent".

The athletes called foul, claiming the change had nothing to do with form and everything to do with internal politicking. Tanui had led reformers calling for greater transparency in the KAAA and seeking to oust Kipligat's stranglehold on the organisation. They went as far as obtaining a court order blocking board elections but the order was mysteriously never served, and Kipligat returned to office unopposed.

Afterwards Kipligat vowed to "crush and destroy these forces who want to take over the management of sport in this country for once and for all".

Coincidentally or not, the marathon runners were dropped weeks later.

Several figures, including Kenyan running legend Kip Keino, intervened on Tanui's behalf but were ignored.

In a tragi-comic twist, one of the replacement runners, Ondoro Osoro, was injured in a violent car robbery days later and Lagat - earlier derided as a slacker - was asked back on the team.

But there was no sign of him on last week's plane either, suggesting he has spurned the offer, leaving Kenya - the world's premier marathon nation - with a reduced two-man Olympic team.

Suffering from chronic drought, widespread poverty and an AIDS pandemic, Kenyans have little to cheer about these days. So the Byzantine arguments over one of the public's few sources of national pride have drawn scorn and annoyance. "Poor preparations will be our undoing," the Daily Nation newspaper warned in an editorial, bemoaning the fact that while other nations were intensifying their preparations, Kenyan officials were "wasting too much time trading accusations." Kenyans realise they have much to be proud of - their stunning record speaks for itself. In 1999 they numbered half of the world's top 20 10,000 metre runners, seven of the top 10 steeplechasers and 25 of the top 50 marathoners. More Kenyans can run a 2:20 marathon than any other nation in the world.

That makes the controversies all the more lamentable, particularly given that they have enough to worry about on the track itself. Kenyans are already glancing nervously over their shoulder at upcoming north African athletes, such as Algeria's Ali Saidi-Seif in the 5,000 metres, who are threatening their dominance of middle and long distance events.

And the KAAA, which controls a ridiculous amount of the world's running talent, will want to avoid the sort of demise suffered by Kenya's footballers. Once the pride of east Africa, the national Harambee All-Stars team failed to qualify for the African Nations' Cup on the last four successive occasions. The Kenya Football Federation has been driven apart by political splits and the club game is at an all-time low.

The final ignominy came last December when the league winners, Mumias Sugar, were stripped of their Premier League title. They were found to have bribed another team, the Kisumu All-Stars with 40,000 shillings [£353] to allow them win the league clincher - by the immodest margin of 10 goals.

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