Of Sports Legacies – Kenneth Matiba’s

In keeping with the spirit of localized sports content, we took time to pay homage to one of Kenya’s foremost entrepreneurs and influences of sports. Though known more for his political exploits than his sporting streak, his legacy will live to endure. Here’s to the late Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba.

In April this year, Kenya mourned the loss of one of its most astute politicians and efficacious entrepreneurs in Kenneth Njindo Matiba. Even more significant to this column, we lost one of the best sports administrators and visionaries the country has ever had.

Starting off as a senior civil servant, Matiba quit politics to join the world of business (before making a re-entry back to politics in the 1980s). His entry into one of Kenya’s blue chip companies, Kenya Breweries otherwise trading as East Africa Breweries Limited, his impact in both business and sports started being felt almost immediately.

The late K.N. Matiba tests the track at Nyayo National Stadium - Image courtesy of www.nation.co.ke
The late K.N. Matiba tests the track at Nyayo National Stadium – Image courtesy of www.nation.co.ke

First off was Kenyan football where he cajoled the revamp and formation of a new team to run the sport. This ensured that not only were the officials meant to be competent people but also accountable to both the sports people and sponsors alike.

As if to reciprocate his intended mission, Kenyan football entered one of its golden periods late 1970s to early 1980s. This was both at club and national team performances – where the AFC Leopards and Gor Mahias of yore won the CECAFA Club title and Harambee Stars the CECAFA Senior Challenge Cup. In the same token, Matiba managed to develop an in-house team in the form of Kenya Breweries which would occasionally challenge the top clubs of Kenyan football then – indeed it was the foundation set in the 1980s which saw the club reaching the continental club cup challenge in 1994 – only to lose in the Finals to DRC’s DC Motema Pembe.

He had intended to professionalize football as early as 1978 while serving as the KFF Chair. Even though this never came to fruition following his resignation from the federation, he had aspired to leave the game with what would have been its enduring legacy. He handed over to the new team with the transparency and accountability of a custodian entrusted to run the federation’s properties.

To ensure his impact wasn’t restricted to one sport, Matiba assigned some of his colleagues at Kenya Breweries to manage the boxing federation. This was through one Marsden Madoka – as chair of Amateur Boxing Association (now known as the Boxing Association of Kenya). Through the latter’s stewardship, Kenya had its best decade to date in the 1980s when the national team, affectionately known as the “Hit Squad” participated in several international tournaments coming home with worthy wins. From the 1987 8-Gold medals performance in Nairobi at the All Africa Games to the first and only Gold medal outside of athletics for Kenya at the 1988 Olympic Games held in Seoul.

Would we forget it’s during Matiba’s stint in the Culture Ministry that Kenya hosted boxing legend Muhammad Ali as well as FIFA’s top honcho then, Joao Havelenge?

Talking matters Olympics, it was during his legacy that the Olympic Youth Centres were launched in Kenya. This was a youth development program meant to develop and nurture talent from all parts of the country. This program produced some of the best footballers who came of age in the 1980s including the likes of Ambrose Ayoyi, Davies Oyiela, Hassan Juma and Wycliffe Anyagu just to mention but a few. It is this breed of players who stood up to Egypt’s The Pharaohs at the 1987 All Africa Games only to lose by a goal in the gold medal match.

Kenya's Harambee Stars at All-Africa Games 1987 - Image courtesy of www.kenyanpage.net
Kenya’s Harambee Stars at All-Africa Games 1987 – Image courtesy of www.kenyanpage.net

The team had beaten strong teams that included Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions (who three years later made history in the 1990 World Cup in Italy getting to the quarter-finals), Malawi and Tunisia. Imagine where The Pharaohs are playing now? At the World Cup in St. Petersburg, Russia. If Kenya had only followed through with the dreams of the 1970s and 1980s? If not at international level, at least the continental onslaught would be more likely achieved by now.

Do you recall the Festival of Darts screened on national television in the 1980s and 1990s? “Gaame shot!” invoked one Sammy Lui Wang’ondu – who worked as Matiba’s PA at Kenya Breweries at one time and moonlighted as an MC on other occasions. For what would appear to have been a nondescript game, the sponsorship and screening of the same by Kenya Breweries popularized the sport immensely locally.

It introduced us to the English and Swahili banter of Michael Round-Turner and Dunstan Tido Muhando whose analysis kept us glued to the screens just before the English news on the only TV station then. Thanks to these developments, the Kenyan Darts national team participated in the 1993 Darts World Cup in Las Vegas emerging 8th out of 34 nations.

To other less visible sporting and outdoor activities including the Outward Bound and Hodari Boys Club – which sought to nurture young boys in their teens to formidable young men to the mountaineering club which did became an obsession to the man, Kenneth Matiba did it all. From snow-capped mountains of Equatorial Africa in Mt. Kenya and Kilimanjaro in Africa to Mt. Everest on the challenging and tall ranges of Himalayas in Asia. For him, it was not enough to put money into sports but rather put money where his mouth was. He did walk his talk, quite literally!

His lessons in sports business and management ought to be chronicled in the annals of Kenyan sport.  He managed to convince the sports federations to style up and clean house.  His was investing in sport but also ensuring the monies put into sports were well spent and sports persons rewarded for their performances.  Our current state of sport in the country is dire need of such a visionary.

Sports federations have been riding roughshod over sports teams and athletes. How do we explain the sad tale of two of Kenya’s top teams who still can’t afford to pay their players on a monthly basis? Why do the clubs have to depend on a single sponsor who whenever it doesn’t suit their needs withdraws sponsorship on a whim? How many times will we keep hearing of unpaid allowances and bonuses for teams on national duty?

Even with the enactment of the Sports Bill, the magic bullet that we have waited for to change and transform sports in Kenya is still a nonstarter. Two Cabinet Secretaries later, the National Sports Lottery is still a cropper even as our athletes keep bringing honor to this nation – at amateur, semi-professional and professional levels. We have seen divestiture by companies from sports on mismanagement of the sponsorship monies as well as increased costs of doing business – Naspers SuperSport comes to mind. If I were to list the companies that have offered to sponsor sports but give it a wide berth due to mismanagement and lack of foresight, I’d run out of space on this article.

What can we learn from the late Matiba?

For starters, sports federations have to learn to operate within the confines of their respective laws and those of the land. Transparency and accountability ought to be second nature to the daily operations.

  • To sports officials, the sports discipline is about the athletes or players – never about you. Let your actions and decisions be the yardstick by which the sporting fraternity uses to judge your performance. Your legacy should speak for itself not weekly press briefings.
  • To Kenyan corporates, put your money where your mouth is. Choose a sport, research well and be invested for the long-haul. The sporadic and measly sponsorships to get good mentions and media mileage will not fly.
  • Still on investment in sport, it should not be an afterthought and peppered CSR activities that brand managers run for. Offer the time, experience and skills to run sport like a business – for we ought to be in the business of sports in this century.
  • To sports athletes, players and coaches discipline, focus and leadership where needed will ensure success of your respective sports disciplines. In the crazy millennium that is the 21st century, yours isn’t an enviable task but it’s the one thing that you have chosen to do – do it well.
  • With his stints in both Kenyan football and other sporting activities, as well as his stint in the Ministry of Culture and Social Services, he served his country diligently. Though brief, the legacies left in respective disciplines are more than we can share here.

God bless Matiba’s time with us, rest in sport brave warrior!