One could almost hear the curses and the shrieks of pain as politicians fell over each other to congratulate Kenya Sevens on its first World Rugby Sevens Series title, which it won in Singapore last Sunday.
The gasps of embarrassment weren’t missing either, as fans learnt that many of the politicians didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Some didn’t even know the name of the team, while others thought the trophy was the World Cup.
The win has resonated around the world, as people react to the shock. A joke I read puts it up there with the recent termination of Kenya’s last International Criminal Court cases and the Kenyan citizenship of the late Obama Snr. as evidence of the country’s greatness. However, hidden beneath the congratulations and claims to fame is a story of resilient men who for years have battled for the game they love against almost insurmountable odds.
Kenya’s team isn’t your typical world-disappointing, try-making, trophy-dancing juggernaut. The players are semi-professionals, making most of their living at day jobs elsewhere. They train regularly and, when a big tournament draws near, they go on more intense training camps, then they celebrate after the tournament and go back to the usual routine. Many of them started playing rugby in high school or later, not when they were toddlers, which is typical of the other top teams.
And the team doesn’t have money. Though politicians and companies are eager to be seen handing them a few million shillings (if the gifts surpass the American GDP per capita, it won’t be by far), the players haven’t picked up their salaries since January. The team sponsor, Kenya Airways, is on the rocks. Nevertheless, the team has managed to stay on form through the years, building itself through relentless effort and consistently featuring among the top rugby teams in the world.
In Adelaide (2009) and again in Wellington (2013) it came within a game of the World Series trophy, but the silverware remained elusive. Each time, and all the other times, the players came back and continued balancing their day jobs with training for the next game. Then, last Sunday, they reached the final. Along came Fiji, the world’s best rugby team.
Kenya felled Fiji, almost ruthlessly, winning 30 – 7, and collected its first ever Series title, after playing in 114 tournaments. Kenya’s Collins Injera, whose face stays inexplicably calm even in the hottest moments of the game, came within five tries of the world record. The victory managed to upset a world that has become used to Kenya providing a backdrop for the other brilliant teams and nothing more.
To give some idea of the scale of the upset, DSTV, a sports TV channel owned by South African media company Multichoice, “experienced” technical difficulties during the trophy-lifting ceremony. Kenyans had to switch channels to watch the proud moment. One Africa anyone? Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Kenya now joins South Africa as the only other African team with a World Series title. We’ll talk nicely to the South Africans though.
The win goes a long way to show the potential Africa still has if the countries could invest in and take sports more seriously. For instance, Kenyan football is in shambles; the team is assembled only days prior to major tournaments, there is no money, no time for training and the officials are always bickering like maids in the market. Fans live with a perennial disappointment. Yet one sees the raw talent in the local clubs, which have some of the most vibrant fan-bases the world over. And a number of Kenyans play in the world’s top clubs. The same is true of countless sports across Africa.
In the end, talents get wasted, and everybody rides on the coattails of those whose personal initiative and dogged resilience bring them world glory, like Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s long distance runners, and the likes of Julius Yego, the Kenyan javelin thrower who trained himself using Youtube and went on to win IAAF gold. If more effort and money had been invested in looking for talents like his, who’s to say the medals podium wouldn’t have had only Kenyans, as frequently happens in the other athletics events?
Not all is lost though. We have known the problem for an eternity, and Kenya’s rugby team has shown how it can be solved. It isn’t the fault of the players that African sports suffer so much. If teams and individual sportsmen are given the support they need, however meagre, the results will never be far from the surface.
As Kenya’s rugby players bask in their newfound glory, they have placed Olympic gold firmly in their sights. Maybe they will win it this time. If they do, it will be quite another shocker, given that other teams are infinitely better funded and prepared (looking at you, USA). But then again, it wouldn’t be the first time this team shocks anyone this year.
Mathew Otieno writes from Nairobi, Kenya