As Athletics Kenya celebrates its 70th anniversary this month, it gives me pleasure to reaffirm that our global share of athletics glory will forever be engraved in the history of sports. The exploits of our iconic athletes are a true hallmark of success, and they offer us a basis to further sports diplomacy as an avenue to increase our linkages.
Since Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila won the first Olympic medal in 1960 in Rome to the bursting of the sub-two-hour barrier by Eliud Kipchoge in 2019, Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes have demonstrated eminence in medium and long distance races to the extent that some track events are renowned as a preserve of the two East African nations.
Clearly this is, on the whole, an affirmation of tested and constant success.
For example, the phrase ‘Kenya’s event’ is used to refer to the 3,000 metres steeplechase which Kenya has dominated since the 1968 Olympics in Mexico when Amos Biwott won the gold medal with compatriot Benjamin Kogo winning the silver medal. In fact, when Biwott won, he did so by leaping over the water jump without putting his foot on top of the barrier!
If Kenya has the magic wand on athletics, then Ethiopia has the golden touch. In 2019, I visited athletics camps in Iten and Eldoret towns; I noted a number of similarities with Bikoji region of Ethiopia.
Hard to ignore
For Ethiopia and Kenya, the statistics are hard to ignore, 70 to 80 per cent of long distance races have been won by a Kenyan or Ethiopian. The annual Standard Charted International Marathon in Kenya and the Great Ethiopian Run have largely dominated as spectator and participation events in the region. If this is pursued as a component of our diplomatic tradecraft, we can make great strides and deepen the people-to-people connection.
The hard-earned reputation of our athletes at the international level of competition have generated substantial business and income to our countries. To date, a number of towns in Ethiopia are donned with skyscrapers belonging to elite athletics icons.
Athletics provides a natural point where our countries twin. It transcends cultural, linguistic and national boundaries. It provides a unique medium of communication upon which countries in the region and beyond can build their economy, especially along the border areas. Kenyan athletes are household names in Ethiopia much as Ethiopian athletes are in Kenya.
The trajectory of athletic performance is on an upward trend, the time is nigh to further cultivate trade and investment opportunities between Nairobi and Addis Ababa so as to achieve sporting success. Given the expansive experience of Athletics Kenya and the Ethiopian Athletics Federation, perhaps, both should exchange experiences on how to take onboard events which were scrapped from the Golden league series. It would be a delight to see our Olympic committees actualise this and hosting athletic events across the borders.
Tellingly, in sports diplomacy, soft power is king. Its impact is two-fold; it can help to build and strengthen influence in our region, and it provides us with unique opportunities to engage our neighbours and advance our national interests.
This can be done in two main ways; by building linkages with our neighbouring countries, leveraging our athletic brand to enhance reputation and building stronger relations at the regional and global levels and enhancing tourism and trade opportunities to showcase our capability in athletics.
The success of athletics has on many occasions been subject to academic research. There are various contending theories which have attempted to explain our running success. One school of thought argued that Ethiopia and Kenya bested the long distance running because pupils run several kilometres to and from school. Another argued that running barefoot helps to develop good running habits. Yet, other researchers have contended that because most of the great runners hail from pastoral communities, they practice running as they chase their sheep and cows.
Our athletes practice hard for success. However, there are times when doping has cast a dark image on some athletes. There is need to shun irresponsible practices which endear emerging talent to engage in such activities. There is need to support policies and practices to help build systems to offset doping.
Mr Meles is Ethiopian ambassador to Kenya