On Saturday, October 12th, Eliud Kipchoge sauntered past the finish in Vienna to become the first person to break the two-hour barrier in a marathon. Across Kenya — as Kipchoge approached the line, his hands beating his chest — crowds of people screamed in delight at what they were seeing on their television screens and mobile phones. In downtown Nairobi, at the intersection of Kenyatta Avenue and Muindu Mbingu Street, there is a video screen, which mostly runs adverts, music videos and old episodes of select television shows. On this particular Saturday, it showed Kipchoge instead, and as he clocked his time of 1:59:40, traffic at the crossing stood still.
In the week leading up to this race, Safaricom, Kenya’s biggest telecommunications company, decided to get in on Kipchoge’s effort. By dialing *159#, its subscribers could get 1590 MBs of Youtube data, ostensibly to be used to stream the race. Additionally, they changed the logo of M-Pesa, Kenya’s ubiquitous mobile money service, to Eliud’s name, which proved a brilliant marketing strategy. Other companies weren’t far behind. EABL, Kenya’s biggest beer company, sold their beer brands at 159 Kenyan shillings in 159 select bars around the country. Other clubs and bars in Nairobi independently followed suit. Carrefour, a French supermarket chain operating in Kenya, announced that a selection of their goods would retail at 159 shillings in honour of Kipchoge’s win.
Kipchoge’s effort sparked euphoria across the country. While Kenya is traditionally a giant in long-distance running, athletics lags behind other sports in popularity. But Kenyans were glued to this race. In Nairobi, and in Eldoret, the athletics hub of the country, throngs of people withstood the drizzle of the rainy season to catch their man making history on special screens along the streets. Elsewhere, people gathered in restaurants and public spaces, and bars and clubs that opened early for the event. In matatus and in offices and in places of business, Kenyans streamed the race on their phones, making full use of Safaricom’s free bundles. For most of them, the event was more a spectacle of patriotism than an important marker in athletics. Eliud is ours, our man, and here is our man writing himself into the history books and the global consciousness.
To the athletics purist, remove the psychological weight of the two-hour mark, and Ethiopian running legend Kenenisa Bekele’s monster run in Berlin a week earlier, when he came within two seconds of Kipchoge’s ratified world record, might have been more important than the events in Vienna. Bekele has finally figured out road running, the purist might note, and that suggests the start of a rivalry between the two in the marathon. To the Kipchoge fan this is a worrisome prospect, not least because of what happened in Paris in 2003, when an 18-year-old Kipchoge beat Hicham El Guerrouj and Bekele to claim gold in the 5K. Following that race, Bekele absolutely dominated the field for the next decade, ensuring that the best Kipchoge would ever finish during that period was silver. Plus, the last time there was a marathon rivalry between a Kenyan and an Ethiopian (Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie), the Ethiopian, more often than not, emerged on top.
In the more general Kenyan psyche, none of this matters. The headlines in Kenyan newspapers in the period leading up to the weekend of October 12th were bleak. In Likoni, a car slipped off a ferry, plunging a mother and her four-year-old daughter to their deaths, kicking up public anger at the lack of safety standards on Kenyan ferries. The Kenyan economy is in dire straits, struggling under the twin strains of wanton theft in government and feckless borrowing. Every other week, there are reports of corporations laying off workers, and businesses closing. Properties are being auctioned as owners struggle to pay off loans. The bleak economic picture, added to the continued political uncertainty since the heavily-disputed presidential elections of 2017, has led to heavy hearts and broken spirits.
Even when they are happy, Kenyans are ever-cognisant of the inadequacies of their country. When William Ruto, the deputy president of the country, handed the Kenyan flag to Kipchoge in Vienna, Kenyans on social media protested his dishonesty, pointing out Ruto’s unfulfilled promises to build stadiums when he campaigned for office in 2013. Kipchoge’s success was borne out of an ecosystem where there is hardly any support for athletes. After Amina Mohammed, the cabinet secretary for sports, tweeted a congratulatory message to the Kenya women’s rugby sevens team, critics quickly noted that the sports ministry had defaulted on its pledge to support the team, leaving it to take out a loan just so it could an Olympics-qualifying tournament.
But on Saturday, Kipchoge broke two, and Kenya won. The day after Kipchoge’s run, Brigid Kosgei broke the women’s marathon record, Lawrence Cherono won the Chicago marathon, and the women’s sevens team sealed its qualification to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The weekend was a vision of a Kenya where things work out, where despite the incompetencies of the system, success is not limited.
We claim Kipchoge’s win as ours. We needed this. Babies are going to be named after this moment, babies called Eliud, and it will always be a reminder that, despite their challenges, no Kenyan is limited.