Medal for corruption

Kenya secured 13 medals in Rio, but the event also exposed the menace of corruption in sport

Silver shot: Julius Yego. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters
Silver shot: Julius Yego. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

Typically, the Olympics make Kenyans giddy. The Games are a chance for them to come together and celebrate something that they can really be proud of. Never mind that I am decidedly not a good long-distance runner. Or short-distance runner. As a Kenyan, I get to bask in the glorious legacy that our runners have built, winning marathon after marathon from London to Boston, and winning medals in most of the Olympics in recent memory.

In Rio this year, Kenya secured 13 medals—six gold, six silver and one bronze—making it the 15th highest-ranking country (in medal count). But the sweetness of victory was tainted by Kenya’s national Olympic committee’s spectacular mismanagement, which highlighted the growing menace of corruption not just in the country’s sports, but in the country at large.

The Kenyan Olympic team’s journey to Rio was troubled by issues from the beginning. In May, Kenya was nearly banned from participating in the Games after the World Anti-Doping Agency declared the country non-compliant (at least 40 of Kenya’s track-and-field athletes have failed drug tests since the 2012 Olympics in London). After missing two deadlines to prove it was tackling the doping problem, Kenya amended its anti-doping laws and secured its spot in the Games.

Despite the false start, Kenyan athletes were primed to compete in Rio. Then they encountered more mishaps. The javelin star, Julius Yego, who taught himself the sport from YouTube, arrived at the airport and found that he didn’t have a ticket. It was only after fellow athletes threatened to not board the plane for the Olympics that the government and airline officials produced a ticket for Yego (he went on to win a silver medal). At least five other athletes made their own travel arrangements after running into the same problem. Sprinter Carvin Nkanata almost couldn’t compete because the Olympic committee had failed to arrange the appropriate documents.

If the incompetence and poor planning weren’t bad enough, there was also the misappropriation of funds—a hallmark of Kenyan corruption. Hundreds of hangers-on joined the Olympic delegation, reportedly for little reason beyond a free trip to Brazil. At the opening ceremony, Kenya’s team came out in mismatched outfits, raising eyebrows and questions. It turns out that Nike had provided gear for all of Kenya’s athletes, but they received only a fraction of it; news reports suggest that the remainder was sold. Nike lodged an official complaint with the deputy president, who was in Rio for the Games, and his office has since called for an investigation.

More shocking was the news that two Kenyan Olympic officials had been expelled from Rio for doping allegations. Michael Rotich, the manager of the Kenyan athletics team, was accused of soliciting a bribe of more than $10,000 (around Rs.6.7 lakh) in exchange for warning athletes about approaching drug tests. John Anzrah, a track coach, was sent home after impersonating an athlete and providing a urine sample for a doping test.

The government has announced that it is opening an investigation, with a spokesman calling the “mishaps” at the Olympics a “disservice to our athletes and the legacy they have built”.

Many hope that the corruption that compromised Kenyans’ ability to reach the finish line and win medals will result in some real change. But it’s unclear if that will be the case. In Kenya, corruption investigations are common, but prosecutions are rare.

Corruption has reached unprecedented levels recently, with scandals dogging the current administration almost constantly since it took office in 2013. In Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index, Kenya was listed as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, ranking 139 out of 168.

It seems that every time Kenyans feel they have reached a new low, the government surpasses even their own lowest expectations. The scandals range from the insidious, wherein millions of dollars have been stolen or remain unaccounted for, to the downright ridiculous, as when a government ministry justified misappropriating thousands of dollars by claiming it procured ballpoint pens for $85 a piece. President Uhuru Kenyatta has said his government has a zero-tolerance policy on corruption, but given the lack of convictions, many Kenyans have come to regard those statements as lip service.

For a country with so much dynamism—and some of the world’s best runners—the disaster on the world stage does a disservice to its people.

In a statement on Monday, Kenyatta finally spoke out about “the problems which frustrated many sportspeople”. He said that these “will be a thing of the past very shortly”. Kenyans hope he actually does something to make sure that this is the case.

Idil Abshir is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

© 2016/The New York Times

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