KENYAN WHO FIRST RAN IN THE OLYMPICS AND COMMONWEALTH GAMES WINNING AGAINST RACISM
By Nyambega Gisesa.
Journalists patronized him “the popular Black Jack from Kenya”, others called him, “the lap monkey”, retired athlete Nyandika Maiyoro was the black man’s experiment of “mysterious” success and he ushered Kenya and Africa to the Olympics and Commonwealth games.
On this late-January afternoon, almost six decades after he stormed the short-distance track filed, Nyandika Maiyoro in his home in Borabu Settlement Scheme is no match for his sick calf.
He struggles to separate a sickly calf from the rest of the cow herd, he runs after it but still the calf outpaces him. He no longer enjoys the charming omniscience of youth.
Borabu Settlement Scheme itself doesn’t have much to advertise about the man who was an item for study in white laboratories, as his style of running and his stamina was ‘unusually un-African.’ He stays here with his second wife Pacificah Gekonde and several grandchildren.
The scheme is an improvised village characterized by the few rich and the poor many. Only two face-me matatus ply the route from Kijauri Town to deep inside the scheme to Isoge. “If you miss the one at 10 in the morning, you will have to wait until 4 in the evening,” an unidentified young man says.
In between this period, you can ride a motorbike whose rate of causing accidents is almost directly proportional to the rate it which they whizz past you.
When the locals heard that Nyandika Maiyoro was finally settling at the place in early 2000, they gathered in the roads to welcome him. In groups they gossiped about his magic powers that made the whites to fear him.
Used to publicity, Kenya’s greatest athletic export, before his student Kipchoge Keino, slowed down to great the villagers. A throng of women and girls grabbed him and momentarily forced him to great them.
Today, they seem to have forgotten his presence. “The villagers rarely even come to visit me. The few visitors I get today are journalists, historians and researchers,” the old man says as he shares sentimental wailings of the past.
Nyandika Maiyoro was the first Kenyan distance runner and among the first Black Africans to ever compete and finish in the Olympic Games. He was the captain of the pioneer Kenyan team that participated in international athletics events.
Other pioneer runners included Arere Anentia, sprinter Seraphino Antao, Kipatarum Ketta, Kanutu Sumu and Joseph Lesai.
In 1948, he was controversially recruited by the Colonial Sports Officer Evans Archer and Senior Chief Musa Nyandusi to participate in the East African Champions. At only 16 years old he won in every race he participated in.
In 1952, he participated in the Empire Games in Antananarivo, Madagascar. It’s during this event that he was famously or infamously introduced to the world. Nyandika only understood Kiswahili and his native Kisii but the games officials used English, French Portuguese to call the participants.
Before the race started, the Colonial Sports Officer Evans Archer had gone for a shot call. When he came back, he discovered that Nyandika was not among those running. Archer was hysterical and started shouting Nyandika’s name.
“Nyandika, mbona haukimbii?Hizo ndizo mbio zako(Why aren’t you running. That is your race,” Nyandika vividly remembers an angry and hysterical Archer yelling at him.
By this time, the other runners were already a lap away in the 5,000 meters race. Without wasting time, he ran into the field and thrilled spectators when he won the race.
The fascination with the 22-year-old runner burgeoned in London’s White City at the 1954 Amateur Association Championship when he stunned over 30,000 people by finishing fourth.
Kenya made a debut in the Commonwealth Games at Vancouver Canada that year and Nyandika clocked 13 minutes and 43.8 seconds finishing fourth.
He immediately became the talk of the Queen of England who ‘thought that Kenya was now ready for independence,’ colonial masters and journalists.
The sensation associated with his heroic deeds was built on grounds that before then no black African from Africa had achieved such a fete. Africans were also banned from participating in European Sponsored sports.
‘The time is not yet ripe for Africans participation in European sponsored sports,’ a statement issued in 1954 by the Northern Rhodesian Olympics and Empire Games Association read.
When Nyandika Maiyoro made a debut for Kenya at the Olympic Games in 1956, he became the first ever Kenyan to compete and finish in the Olympics. He participated in 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters finishing 7th in 1,500 meters in a race that included world record holders Vladimir Kuts and Gordon Pire. The other Kenyan runner was Lazaro Chepkwony who ran but was injured.
The Daily Express had reported a year early on October 12th 1955 that Africans were banned from the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. ‘Our (European) efforts should be directed towards educating the African in true Sportsmanship,’ the paper reported.
In the 1950’s, African black stars were viewed as possessing “great speed but little stamina,” and hence Nyandika’s athleticism was termed as “extremely unusual.”
The British Press declared his performance as a defining moment in the history of athletics. The Editor of British Track Magazine Athletics Weekly wrote “never again shall we nurse the idea that the colored races are not good at nothing beyond a mile.”
During the 1954 White City event in the 3 mile(5,000 meters) race, Athletics World reported that his performance was a revelation of “a physical ability in the greatest Caucasian traditions”-an aberration of ‘the African.’
The liberal Manchester Guardian declared that the 1954 event was ‘made confusing’ by Nyandika Maiyoro’s ‘ludicrously fast pace,’ while The Times (London) stated that it was ‘inevitable’ that he would be overtaken by the white runners.
One of the world’s most respected athletics writers Jourdy McWhirter patronizingly referred to Nyandika as “the popular Black Jack from Kenya.” He further wrote that he (Nyandika’s) was a “one half-miller who built up a big lead on the first lap, only to fall away on the second.” “He is only a one-lap wonder,” McWhirter added.
American journalist Dick Bank labeled Nyandika as “the most stupid tactician of all time.” Bank added that he had “such an exaggerated opinion of himself that he(thought he(could) out sprint everyone.”
Without a pair of sneakers, running barefooted identified a sign of difference in him signifying “the other.” When he ran faster at both the 1956 Olympics and 1954 Commonwealth Games he was called “naïve” while when Russian Vladimir Kuts employed the same tactics during the same games he was referred as “tactical.”
Nyandika says that abuses and obscenities aimed at him never slowed him down but instead fueled his passion to win.
He remembers hearing the commentator at the Melbourne Olympics. “The race is almost over and oh my God I see a black man …he his closing the gap…..oh no, he is barefooted….he looks like a mad man,” he vividly recalls the words.
“Even if you call me a nyani (monkey) today I won’t mind,” Nyandika says while laughing.
In 1958, he ran in the British Empire Games and Commonwealth Games in Cardiff finishing 12th in the 5,000 meters event and was eliminated in the heats of the 1,500 meters event.
Two years’ later, he participated in the Rome Olympics finishing 6th in 13 minutes and 53.2 seconds-his personal best. In the same year, he was elected as ‘Sportsman of the Year’ in a contest ran by the Nation group of newspapers currently Nation Media Group.
It’s during this event that Africa first bagged an Olympic medal. Clement ‘Ike’ Quartey of Ghana became the first black African Olympic medalist after winning the light welterweight boxing silver medal. Five days later, a small soldier from Ethiopia Bikika Abebe became Africa’s first Olympic Champion.
From rabbit hunting to "the World”
Talk to any person who knew as a boy, and they'll tell you he's been a runner since childhood. He used to run 10 kilometers daily from his home in Kiogoro, Kisii District to Nyakegogi Primary School. He dropped out of school while in class 5 to concentrate in running.
Nyandika used to win in virtually all events he participated in 3 miles (currently known as 5,000 meters) and in the 1 mile event (currently 1,500 meters).
As a kid, he loved hunting dogs that he used to hunt rabbits and deer in the bush. After dropping out of school to participate in Kenya Sports Championship, the white colonial officers employed him as a veterinary scout. Later in life he was employed as the caretaker of Kisii Municipal Stadium.
Nyandika was coached by the extremely strict late senior chief Musa Nyandusi and Colony Sports Officer Evans Archer.
Through his running he became a hero and the colonial officers as a result built him a house in Kisii Town. The house located in the Kisii Municipal Stadium is the subject of a tussle after Nyandika was ejected from the premises.Kisii Municipal Council insists that the house is built on a public property hence “an individual cannot own it.”
Last year, the Prime Minister speaking at the stadium ordered the Nyanza Provincial Commissioner to ensure that Nyandika got “his” house back. The Sunday Nation has since established that the house has not been handed to him.
Nyandika retired from running in 1964 after participating in the Tokyo Japan Olympics after an American friend who he only remembers as Porter advised him to do so. “You are the first African to run in the Olympics and Commonwealth games. It is better you retire when your name is respected,” Porter advised him.
In 1961, he was knighted the Member of British Empire (MBE) award by the Queen of England for his services to athletics in Kenya from 1949 to 1960.
In 1987, he was awarded a Silver Star (SS) medal by retired Kenyan President Moi and Kenyatta University awarded him a Distinguished Service award on 19th October 1995 in appreciation of outstanding contribution in Athletics.
Nyandika Maiyoro’s exploits sent historians racing to establish whether pioneer runners contributed to the independence struggles.
John Bale in the book Sports Stars: The Cultural Politics of Sporting Celebrity in the topic Transgression, colonial rhetoric and post-colonial athlete argues that the athleticism of Maiyoro and Kipchoge Keino boosted not only the newly independent Kenya, but also the emerging world of post-colonial independence Africa.
The only well known “resistance act” in track and field is during the Olympics at Mexico City when black athletes saluted a black power salute, which was undertaken after they had won the awards. The 1968 Mexico games were termed as “the unfair games” since “Kenyans from high altitude areas had unfair advantage.”
The earlier success made by Nyandika Maiyoro and other African runners led to a decision by the International Olympics Committee to abolish racial segregation in sports in October 1963.