Ezekiel Kemboi did not see the wheel of time turning. He did not listened to what his body was telling him. The erstwhile Kenyan 3000 metres steeplechase marvel is accordingly in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Kemboi first bagged gold in Athens in 2004. He would repeat the feat in London in 2012. But he did a lot more. He took gold in the World Championships in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015. This is over and above other significant victories that we need not go into. Wednesday this week in Rio de Janeiro, he came third behind compatriot gold medalist Conselsus Kipruto and an American gentleman. Kemboi immediately announced his retirement from athletics, as he should have done much earlier. Yet the drama was only beginning. The following day, he was stripped off his poor bronze, allegedly for having stepped outside the track.
Our good man will be coming back home empty handed. But the decision to take away his bronze quickly led Kemboi to rescind his retirement decision. “See you in London at the world championships next year,” he told his rivals. He is going to London to bring back his thing, taken away on the track. And so London is going to be worth waiting for. Will Kemboi reclaim his thing? Time will tell. One thing, however, is that we don’t seem to know how to read the signs of the times – even to listen to our own bodies and take a dignified walk from theatres of excellence.
America’s Carl Lewis distinguished himself in the field and on the track. He bagged 10 Olympic medals, nine of them gold. He won nine World Championship medals, eight of them gold. He became a household name throughout the 1980’s. Then he failed to see the wheel of time and the attrition that goes with it. The World Championships of 1993 in Stuttgart, Germany, brought new kids on the block. At the starting line for the 100 metres finals, you saw the restless Linford Christie of the UK, edgy like a lion in a cage; eager to be released. Within 10 seconds, history was written. Christie was the new 100 metres World Champion. Lewis came a distant fourth. He however won his first world championship medal in 200 metres – a bronze. But he was not quite done. In 1996 he qualified for the Atlanta Olympics. Fate conspired to keep the frontrunners Mike Powell and Ivan Pedroso on the injury list. Lewis won his final gold in long jump. However, he sullied it by trying to force his way into the US 4 by 100 metres relay, although he had not trained with the team. The last memory of his career is about the ugly debate around him in Atlanta. He quit quite disgraced.
It will be recalled how at the same Atlanta Olympics Christie was disqualified after making two false starts in the finals of 100 metres final. He kicked up an ugly fuss! He stole the limelight for all the wrong reasons. Christie is the only Briton to have won gold medals in 100 metres in four major competitions – Olympic Games, European Championships, Commonwealth Games and World Championships. He won 24 major medals, including 10 gold medals. Yet memory of his career brings up recollections of bans over substance abuse, wrangles on and off the track, driving bans over careless motoring and the like. His country has attempted to decorate him by naming stadia and other stuff after him. Yet his undignified exit from a colourful sporting career will just not go away.
How you finish is important. There are people who have known this, in sports and in other walks of life too. Brazil’s soccer legend Edson Arantes do Nacimento (Pele) and German’s Franz Backenbauer are among the greatest living players. They knew when to quit and went on to do other great things for the sport they love. At the time of this writing, sports lovers are waiting with bated breath to see how Jamaica’s Usain Bolt performs in the short races in Rio. The fastest man in the world has announced that he retires after the World Championships next year. In an interview in the current issue of Kenya Airways Msafiri Magazine, he says, “I want to quit before I am beaten.”
It is the same in political leadership. The Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos started off as a popular darling of the people, in 1965. He left a disgraced dictator in 1986. Ivory Coast’s Felix Houphouet Boigny reigned for 33 years. The people were fed up with him by the time he died in office in December 1993. Closer home, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni were great darlings of their people. Today they face recurrent opprobrium from those who cherished them.
Kenya’s own Mzee Moi was a breath of fresh air when he took over from Mzee Kenyatta in 1978. And although he pledged to walk in Mzee’s footsteps, his first four years were differently refreshing. Things began changing in the lead up to the 1982 coup attempt. As he left 20 years later, some in the crowd threw crude objects at him. It is important to read the turning of the wheel of time. I suspect that the present crop of Opposition leaders in Kenya will reflect on this, and especially Raila Odinga.
Raila has possibly sacrificed and suffered for this country more than anybody else that I could think of. He has lived on the right side of history. Yet like Andrew Marvell’s coy mistress, time’s winged chariot is hurrying near. In politics, as in sports, it pays to make a dignified exit – to find a dignified escape route. Raila Odinga, and maybe Kalonzo Musyoka, may want to reflect on this. Defeat next year will be the ultimate humiliation and goodbye. As Lord Byron would say, “We’ll go no more a roving; so late in the night, though the heart be still as loving, and the moon be still as bright. For, the sword outwears its sheath, and the soul wears out the breast, and the heart must pause to breathe, and love itself have rest.”