I woke up on a Wednesday morning to the news of Jonah Lomu’s passing. It was a brief WhatsApp message, “Your rugby hero Lomu has died”. I immediately trooped on to social media to pay my tribute. It was a trip down memory lane for those who remembered the 90s when Lomu first burst into the scene in superior form. He became an instant sports celebrity. His size, might and exploit on the field was stuff of legend. In university, we would comb the town looking for bars with TV screens that were subscribed to DSTV SuperSport. We would do anything to catch a rugby game including showing up at a guys’ house at 5am to catch the game because of time zone difference. Sometimes we could not afford more than beer, hardly enough to get you even tipsy but the chance of catching a live game was all the comfort we required. The team that did it for us was the All Blacks and the man who everyone wanted to see and to be was Jonah Lomu. The friendly giant from New Zealand, a beast on the pitch, devastating in attack and solid in defense. Even those of us who played in the pack, traditional slower roles on the pitch wanted to run ball like Lomu.
There is something about your first sports heroes. That personal performance on the playing field that turns the casual fan into a fanatic. In basketball there was Michael Jordan of Chicago Bulls. Ronaldinho, the Brazilian footballer. Michael Schummacher in Formula 1 racing. Serena Williams in women’s tennis. Sachin Tendulkar the legendary Indian cricketer. Mike Tyson in pro boxing and Paul Tergat in cross country. They were irreplaceable and unforgettable. Players who come through once in a long cycle to turn a sport on its head and achieve the impossible. One can only feel privileged to have watched them in their prime. Lomu was cut from the same cloth. He was probably the only rugby player who was recognised globally by non-rugby sport fans.
Sports is a great ambassador for any country. New Zealand, a country of 4 million people has produced a constant mill of star performers perhaps only in manner that Kenya produces star athletes. Ask me anything about New Zealand and all I have are the legendary exploits of the All Blacks. I cannot name the NZ prime minister or any other detail about country other than the aspiration to watch a Live All Black home game one day, when prosperity shines.
Kenyan rugby playing style was influenced a great deal by NZ running rugby style. It was the contrast between the set piece styles of traditional Northern hemisphere sides adopted by pioneer local teams like Nondescripts and Harlequins to the inspiration of Southern hemisphere running rugby that would become the signature style of rebel ‘miro’ squads of Mean Machine and Mwamba. Running rugby, makes the sport entertaining. A few days before, Kenya sevens team qualified for the Olympics games in Rio in a manner that was a tribute to our entertaining running style.
Athletics is our answer to New Zealand rugby but ask any Kenyan to name their top 10 Kenyan greats and most will hit a blank after Kipchoge, Tergat and Rudisha. Kemboi might register but only because of his post-race theatrics.
We rarely celebrate our sports heroes. Harambee Stars were treated like trash only recently during the preparation for a vital World Cup qualifying away game in Cape Verde. Subjected to a 16 hour flight ordeal in a Fokker aircraft to Cape Verde, less than 3 hours to recover and no one was surprised when they lost by 2 goals. If football, the country’s biggest sport gets that type of shabby treatment imagine what’s in store for the fringe sports like hockey, basketball, cricket and boxing. Film maker Jackie Lebo, in her awarding winning documentary ‘The Last Fight’ captures the plight of Kenyan boxers returning home as champions to an empty airport and a bus trip back to their houses to reclaim their destitute lives.
Sports heroes are bit like war heroes. They put their lives on line for the love of country to return home to be despised and ignored. They say, “A sports hero dies twice, the first time at retirement”. The Kenyan landscape is littered with broken and forgotten sports stars. The tragic stories of Henry Rono, Wangila Napunyi, Suleiman Bilal, Congestina Achieng, Maurice Odumbe where depression has become the recurring footnote of a great sporting career. What happens to Julius Yego when he stops winning?
Perhaps the take home could be drawn from Jonah Lomu’s own journey who bravely fought a kidney illness that ended his career prematurely, “You have to try and stay up and be happy and positive about it. We have no other choice. Your second choice isn’t really a choice. It’s just you giving up”. Next time you meet a sports hero on the street, take a moment to put their reality into perspective, then take a bow and thank them for their moment of greatness.