Sports and politics remain uneasy bedfellows. We are often told that sports and politics do not mix up, that politicians should not meddle with sport, and most sport organizations should discourage governments from encroaching on their territory. One may even object to the suggestion that sports and politics are a tie on principle alone. There is politics in sports and sports in politics. In this piece we will take a look at the latter; that is, the ways in which sports are part of and implicated in the political process.
Sports and political Leadership:
The President of the Republic of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta has maintained the label by regularly attending sporting events of all types, inviting and rewarding winning teams at state house (Gor Mahia after winning the league unbeaten in 2015 and Kenya Rugby sevens after their Singapore triumph) and setting aside funds for the World Athletics Junior Championships and 2018 CHAN competitions.
Sports serve at least three key functions to politicians:
First sport provides stage for public visibility, attention, and awareness. For a politician, virtually all publicity is good. Appearing at an event, whether kicking a ball before a big match, or just sitting at the stands is bound to attract cameras and mentions in the local newspapers and blogs. NASA presidential flag bearer Hon. Rt. Raila Odinga was photographed kicking a ball in the official commissioning of the newly constructed 5,000 seat capacity astro turf stadium at Mtwapa, Mombasa.
At the very minimum, sport provides a safe stage for politicians to remind the public of their existence.
Secondly and more significantly, sport can help solidify a politician’s reputation, identity and social status. It can demonstrate that at least on some level, just one of the guys/gals- or even better: a certain kind of guy. Machakos governor Dr. Alfred Mutua was seen holding brief talks with Kenyan internationals Victor Wanyama and Michael Olunga after the Harambee Stars vs DRC Congo friendly match at Machakos Stadium in March 2017. When a politician appears at, say, a football match or a golf championship, it shows they share a common passion with the wider public. In the same way a political candidate drinking beer at the local watering hole or appearing at a sporting event proves he or she isn’t an elitist snob.
In any case, the manner in which sports provides the chance to connect with communities that bridge political and ideological divides makes it particularly appealing to those seeking public approval. This speaks to the third way in which sports is crucial to political leadership. Whether it’s sitting at the stadium stands or receiving athletics champions at the State House, politicians love to be associated with the fun, positive energy associated with modern sports, not to mention the aura of excellence, excitement, and success. These appearances work toward the creation of legitimacy, likeability, and the credibility through the transference of the positive feelings associated with sports, especially those that are popular and successful. There is little doubt that smart politicians and their advisors are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to create good feelings by associating their campaigns and agendas with sports, athletes and sporting events.
Arguments for public of professional sports stadiums rely heavily on the belief that sport can forge community. Building such monuments to sports is one of the few endeavors a local politician can undertake to define her agenda and leave a mark on the city. The new/refurbished stadiums in Mtwapa, Meru, Eldoret highlight this kind of thinking under the Governors Joho, Munya and Mandago, all who are politicians.
The Kenya government together with the county governments is the supplier of infrastructure towards all sports organizations locally. There isn’t a single sporting institution that owns a stadium. All are owned by either the county governments after the devolved system of governance came into place or the national government (Nyayo and Kasarani stadiums). The same government via the legislative arm makes laws that are of importance in the day to day running of the sports organisations by making laws like the Sports Act or the Anti-Doping Act. No club or sports organization can run independently without government assistance. Football Kenya Federation receives a sizeable chunk of revenue from the government to run her operations when it comes to Harambee Stars and Starlets. Athletics Kenya receives funding towards their participation at the Olympic & Commonwealth games.
Political leaders have seen the potential of making sport political. No one can blame them for using the sport for their own purposes, not least when we consider that the sport movements never have been shy to invite political actors into the sport family. In fact, at long times they have had mutual interests to continue working on their relationship. Sports organizations have been preparing for an “invasion” of sport. Stanley Okumbi, the Harambee stars coach was last year seen at a local tournament in Othaya at the invitation of Mary Wambui the area MP. The ongoing Governor’s cup in Nairobi is sponsored by Governor Dr. Evans Kidero in conjunction with Football Kenya Federation to curb alcoholism and drug abuse is an opportunity for the governor to make himself look common to the youth. Last week Governor Kidero hosted Gor Mahia and AFC Leopards players at his offices ahead of Sunday’s “mashemeji derby”.
The rugby fraternity through Mwamba FC was not left behind as members of the club were gleefully taking selfies with the governor outside his office at City Hall after paying him a courtesy call. The annual Koth Biro tournament in Ziwani last December attracted Nairobi senator and aspiring governor Mike Sonko, His Worship George Aladwa, members of parliament aspirants Steve Mbogo, Karen Nyamu and Babu Owino. The politicians rewarded various teams and players in cash for their exemplary performances in the tournament.
Sports and politics have similarities. In both there are role models and inspiring figures. Both share a constant command of the limelight, a huge following, an intrusive media and a fierce loyalty from their supporters. At certain moments both have the ability to unite a nation.
Sportsmen and women, for all their fame and some fortune are less willing to be political. Perhaps their careers at stake make them nervous about offering up opinions in case they upset anyone. Various competitors have looked or are looking for political office either nationally or sub-national level. The 2012 Boston marathon winner and now Cherengany MP Wesley Korir entered the murky waters of politics in 2013 to effect change having seen first-hand the abuse and disrespect meted out at local athletes. He was part of the parliamentary committee that unraveled the distasteful corruption rot at the national Olympic Committee Kenya during the 2016 Rio Olympics. Kogalo’s team captain Jerim Onyango who was a candidate of the Unguja MCA seat invited Rt.Honorable Raila Odinga at his political launch occasion- a football tournament. Ingwe’s secretary general and his deputy Oscar Igaida and Elijah “Stanzo” Omungala both vied for MCA seats within Nairobi county . The Secretary General of Kenya Boxing Federation Franklin “Kuka” Imbenzi was also successfully nominated for the Harambee Ward MCA ticket (ODM) whilst FKF Nairobi East branch Chairman Michael Ouma was nominated for the Kariobangi North ward MCA ticket (ODM) too.
It does not take a great imagination, only a sociological one, to see that sport is indeed a powerful political platform. Sport is actively sought as a stage on which to be seen and solidify one’s public identity, leadership qualities and political legitimacy. Sports language and imagery is pervasive in our political rhetoric. There is no denying it, from paying for new stadiums via tax shillings to standing for the national anthem to considering a mandate that women footballers need the same treatment like men, sports and politics are tightly entwined. In short it’s not necessary to take sport out of politics, but simply to realize that it is there and to engage it appropriately. Perhaps realization is the first and most basic “political” act of all.
The place for sport in society, whether democratic or otherwise, remains significant. Sport and politics simply cannot escape each other. They remain as interlinked as the Olympic rings themselves.
Harold Ndege is a Sports Consultant, Analyst, Writer and a former Tusker FC player