Part 2: History of Kenyans in Major International Events

In athletics, there are two major events able captivate the public interest and bring the names of runners into the common vernacular, the Olympics and World Championships. These two events are able to captivate the general public due to their international appeal, by having countries in direct competition, nationalism leads to an increased spectatorship. Aside from these to events that can be considered mega-events, other notable events would be the Commonwealth Games, African Championships, and Indoor World Championships. Despite being lesser known events, they place a crucial role in exploring the international dominance of Kenyan runners.

For the sake of of the chronological perspective, exploration of the Commonwealth Games will provide the foundation for international expectations surrounding African runners. Kenyan runners will provide the focus of this section, however, given the social and political climate of the 1900s, the continent was often portrayed in generalizing terms. Originating as the British Empire Games, in August of 1930, the incarnation of the Commonwealth Gems began in Hamilton, Canada. During these inaugural games, Kenya and many other African countries were under British colonial rule after the British Crown took over the British East Africa Company, and established the East African Protectorate in 1895, which from an athletic perspective was the initial diffusion of modern sports into the region.  This brought African Runners under the [English] Amateur Athletic Association (AAA). It should be noted that Kenya did not participate in the games until 1954, three years after the Kenyan Amateur Athletic Association was formed. Despite lack of participation by Kenya and other African nations, Nigeria (1950), Ghana (1958), and in following years, mentioning the games during their absence signals the deliberateness of the games architects to establish a a sporting realms for whites. Given the political atmosphere of the 1930s, intentions behind the games played into the colonial mindset of Anglo-Saxon superiority and demonstrating it though physical competitions that were geared towards their advantage. A blatant example of this thinking can be found in the naming of the games themselves and subsequent changes to the name as political inclinations concerning imperial domination waned after the second world war.

As for participation in the event, the British Empire Games were open to territories within the British Empire, which included dominions, colonies, crown dependences, and later spread to countries who achieved independence, provided they could compile teams to field various events. An explanation for the creation of the games and their importance to the empire can be understood though ideas relating to cultural imperialism. Following the theories of historian Henning Eichberg, the introduction of modern sport is considered a tool for modernization and civilization, which could take the form of “ethnocentrism, imperialism, and colonialism, or at least eurocentrism.” By focusing on natural and traditional cultures of movement and supplanting them with modern sports in the western tradition, the occupying culture, in the case the British, cultural imperialism is taking hold over African bodies themselves, as they are dictated a specific way of moving. This is apparent at a superficial level, aside from being name of the games themselves, the British Empire Games Federation dictated which events would be up contention, which genders were allowed in particular events, and geographical location of the games. Effectively becoming the surrogate for imperialist ideologies, that being they were responsible for civilizing and organizing the world. Mentioning this is not to discredit organized sports and their legitimacies, however, it is mentioned to bring to light the physical control exerted over African bodies through a foreign agency. It can be argued that participation by African competitors is somewhat voluntary, however, when given opportunities to engage in direct conflict against imperial aggression, national pride tends to trump abstinence.  By participating in the games, Africans were able to combat preconceived notions of inferiority and savagery that were conjured up by occupying forces. In addition, if able to perform at a high level, a source of political and social prestige would be captured by those who are occupied. 

As for participation by Kenyan athletes, by 1954, Kenya was in the grips of what would be known as the Mau Mau Rebellion, led by the Kikutu tribe. A war that was waged between white settlers in the Highlands of the Rift Valley and the increasing marginalized Kikuyu was fought over land rights and distribution. As the rebellion raged on in Kenya as a major political and social affair, 1952 coincided with the rise of Kenyan athletics internationally after Sir Derek Erskine establishment of Athletics Kenya (AK)  marked – “the first year the Kenyan team was allowed to participate in competitions outside East Africa.”

Written by - Marquis Caldwell