Last Saturday, Eliud Kipchoge became the first human to run the marathon in under two hours. With that feat, he entered the annals of sports history. We, the spectators, only see the performance of such feats, not the pain involved in the preparation.
World boxing legend Muhammad Ali once said that when preparing for a fight, he would only start to count when the pain began to bite.
Michael Jordan, that once all-achieving and larger than life US basketballer, after defying gravity on the courts, would spend lonely moments with his swollen feet in a bucket of ice.
We cheered the heroics of record setting sprinter Usain Bolt, but did not see him wake up before dawn to practice or witness his painful struggles with injury.
We see Kipchoge and his compatriots writ large on billboards, not the lonely shadowy figures running in the freezing early morning mist of high altitude training camps in Kenya’s Rift Valley.
There is also the mental preparation; training the mind to believe that these superhuman feats are possible. Leonardo da Vinci, the 15th century Italian painter, inventor and scientist, called this attitude “stubborn application” and adopted it as his life’s motto.
There is another characteristic of great achievers. They do what they do, not only to achieve personal greatness but to also inspire their communities or nations to see the possibilities of life, not its limitations.
Muhammad Ali said that a “man without imagination has no wings, he cannot fly.” So he fought to inspire people to ‘‘fly’’ out of their particular limitations. Limitations placed by racism and poverty or by whispering voices from within or without, saying: “You cannot do it.”
Kipchoge’s motto is “no human is limited,” if only they reach deep within themselves.
These champions inspire us all to feel confident about ourselves. They validate our communities and allow our countries to shine. They demonstrate the resilience and possibilities of the human spirit. And yet, as great as they are, these heroes show humility and compassion.
Muhammad Ali used his wealth to further humanitarian causes around the world. Kipchoge intends to build sporting infrastructure in poverty-stricken schools in his home area. Their values reflect humanity’s best instincts.
It was, therefore, disheartening in the extreme to see Kenyan politicians at the finish line in Vienna and back in Kenya trying to launder their dirty moral selves by associating with Kipchoge’s triumph.
It was jarring to the senses to see the juxtaposition of diametrically opposed modes of behaviour and sets of values. While Kipchoge is humble, the politicians are pompous and ostentatious.
Kipchoge makes his own money through unflinching self-sacrifice, politicians rob their country to build mansions and buy land and helicopters. While he is disciplined, they lead lazy hedonistic lifestyles. While he encourages the best from all of us, they incite the worst in us.
While Kipchoge preaches that “no human is limited,” they teach us that this or that tribe is limited in this or that way. Kipchoge wants his example to inspire others to get to his level, politicians want to keep giving handouts to the poor.
Kipchoge lifts high the Kenyan flag, the politicians soil it with their moral decadence. Kipchoge tries to change Kenya’s image of a land of poverty and thievery to one of self-sacrifice and determination but the behaviour of the political class perpetuates that reputation. Kipchoge made every Kenyan proud. Politicians make us ashamed of being Kenyan.
On the same weekend that Kipchoge performed his superhuman feat, fellow compatriot Brigid Kosgei broke the world record in the Chicago marathon. Like Kipchoge, her accomplishment lifted us from the doldrums of despair.
There are many others, such as Peter Tabichi, who won the 2019 Global Teacher Prize. He sacrifices his time to help struggling students and uses his meagre salary to pay fees for needy children.
There is the artist Wangechi Mutu who made us proud by having her art installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There is the lovely and talented Lupita Nyong’o, wearing her kinky hair and dark skin with pride in Hollywood.
There are writers and scholars—Ali Mazrui, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Binyavanga Wainaina, Yvonne Owuor, Prof Kimani Njogu—who lift our spirits and allow us a breather from daily tales of theft and state negligence.
There are others like John Githongo, Willy Mutunga and Boniface Mwangi who continue to crusade against state capture by cartels. Despite the machinations of the political class to keep us down so that only they can thrive, there are others trying to lift us up so that we all thrive.
Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.