On April 17th 2016, the Kenyan rugby fraternity was ecstatic. It felt good to be Kenyan. We had finally arrived. The impossible had been achieved. Kenya 7s had won the main Cup at HSBC finals at the Singapore Sevens, against the formidable Fiji, the most successful rugby sevens playing nation in the world.
I was a young sports editor in 2003, heading a small team of four behind a magazine called Sports Monthly, a round up of sports news, features, and opinions in Kenya. It was a great time to be a sports editor. Kenya had lit the sporting world with outstanding performances. This was my first foray in the world of sports journalism and away from my weekly column beat as a relationship critic in a weekend newspaper.
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.
The Rugby World Cup has just commenced and it is a great cover for the emasculated husband coming home late. Entire weekends will be scheduled around the game and wives and girlfriends had better get used to it.
I have been a rugby fan for the better part of my life but despite years of sleeping, eating, dreaming rugby, I never quite graduated to the category of a super fan. As the years have passed, I have been reduced to a casual fan, never fully invested enough to worry about the outcomes of crucial games during the season however, every World Cup that recessive rugby gene is activated.
There was a time in life, where my social life revolved all around rugby. I had the privilege of wearing the white and blue jersey of the University of Nairobi’s Mean Machine, the Harvard of institutional rugby clubs ( times have changed I learn) and the sport helped me gain a lot of character. Rugby, was more than a game. It was a way of life. The camaraderie that the game evoked was always a good excuse for a party and friendships made on and off the pitches have lasted for years.
Rugby for starters must be disassociated with its lesser cousin footie. Footballers spend 90 minutes pretending to be hurt. Rugby players spend 80 minutes pretending not to be. Rugby carries the dubious distinction of being a sport followed by many and understood by few. Rugby is a bit like the Kenyan constitution. Everyone claims to have read it but few understand the contents. Fortunately, not understanding the rules does not stop one from enjoying the game.
Although locally rugby may be presently main stream, the technical appreciation of the game is left to die-hard fans who will be ruling the roost in bars around the country for the duration of the rugby world cup. Female spectators quite unashamedly admit that the appeal is mostly sweaty muscle men in tight shorts. A typical match has sexual innuendos that only females can decipher.
Rugby has a lot latent lessons for a young man navigating manhood and life in general. Boys who participate in sport have the privilege of benefiting from a contemporary male rite of passage. The games teaches one to stand up for themselves, deal with loss, fight for goals against innumerable odds, earn respect and peer acknowledgement. It is hard to be become a bun when you have been a champion even briefly.
Rugby teaches us how to be men. It is where a boy first learns physical toughness. You learn how to be part of a team, make your contribution count and share in the glory of triumph. There is the bonding experience, the controlled aggression and the important lesson that on the pitch as in life, nice guys finish last. Women continue to be strongly attracted to alpha males on and off the pitch. If you cannot accept losing, you cannot win. Ultimately, to stretch the metaphor, it is not the size of the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog that really matters. Talent is good but hard work is better. The more you sweat in practice, the less you bleed in battle.
Competition is a natural component of a man’s life. In the heat of moment, tempers flare and loose punches are thrown. It is unavoidable and fair play is not always the underlying principle. Refs like election monitors can aggravate matters left to their own devices. Beautiful women on the sidelines can distract you from important life goals. Every winner enjoys his five minutes of fame and life is lonely for the perennial loser. Champions were once contenders who refused to give up. Sports is one of the few arenas where a man can show his tears without a hint of embarrassment. Sometimes, surviving is more important than winning or losing.
In the long run, no one cares as much how you win as long as you win. As in life, people, who do all the hard work, never make the headlines and under the influence of alcohol all men are equal.
Sports is one of the few male bonding experiences that cuts across race, creed, social status or age. Every weekend, men make the weekly pilgrimage to the big screen, to seek entertainment that allows them to escape reality. To relive that feeling of freedom, the one moment of invincibility when the final whistle is blown and the trophy is lifted to the sky.
Sport loyalty and allegiance to teams is something universally shared by most men. If more women understood this, they would feel less of a need to complain about been in a love triangle with a sports fan.
Rugby is a simple game. Two teams will chase an oval ball around for 80 minutes and in the end, the All Blacks will win.
Enjoy the Rugby world Cup.