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Veteran Kenyan sprinter pained by watching current runners make millions

Eliud Kipchoge is believed to have earned over Sh40 million in his record breaking victory in the Berlin Marathon last month.

The colossal amount came from the winner’s prize, world record bonus as well as performance-related add ons from his sponsors. For many Kenyans, this is an amount they would never lay their hands on in their lifetime yet Kipchoge managed it in just two hours!

No one is more ‘depressed’ by the big bucks current runners take home than some of Kenya’s athletics legends.

“When we started out, we were being awarded plates and soap for winning local competitions organised by traditional leaders and we were very excited by this,” recalls Charles Asati, Kenya’s pioneer athlete who was part of the celebrated 4x400m quartet that won the country’s first and only gold in the relays at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games alongside Munyoro Nyamau, Robert Ouko and the late Julius Sang.

Asati anchored the race, then passed the baton to Nyamau, with Ouko running the third leg before Sang sprinted to victory in 2:59.83.  The 1970 gold was an improvement on a surprise silver four years earlier in Mexico where Asati was part of the quartet alongside Nyamau, Naftal Bonny and Daniel Rudisha (father to David Rudisha) that recorded 2:59.6 to finish second against all odds in the 4x400m behind USA.

A revered athlete, the 72-year-old remains the best sprinter Kenya has ever produced as besides the Olympics heroics, he also won gold in 400m at the 1973 All Africa Games before wrapping up his career with double gold in both 400m and 4x400m relay at the 1974 Commonwealth Games.

“Besides this, I also won gold in Europe in 1969 in 400 metres while Nyamau won bronze. I also won gold in Edinburg, Scotland in 1970 and Bronze in 1973 in Italy,” says Asati.

1976 controversy

He could have perhaps added to his medal haul in 1976 when he was captain for Team Kenyan to third Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada but could not participate after the government told them to boycott if South Africa and News Zealand played rugby.

Twenty-nine countries, mostly Africa, boycotted the Montreal Games when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to ban New Zealand, after their rugby team had toured South Africa earlier in 1976 in defiance of the United Nations’ calls for a sporting embargo.

“The two teams had played yet they were not supposed to since South Africa was still under apartheid,” recalls Asati.

The veteran athlete discovered his talent in the late 50s when he was in primary school at Nyaikuro and Itibo in Nyamira County.

He got encouragement from his late father Momesu Nyakina, an an athlete, who participated in inter-community competitions in athletics and tug-of-war.

He would drop out in standard three at Nyaikuro primary school due to lack of school fees after which he landed a job at Tagab Tea Estate in Kericho. After making some money, Asati returned to school at Itibo but this time in standard two in the early 60s.

“I worked for two years at the tea Estate, joined Itibo primary for some time and completed my standard seven at Kianungu primary in 1965 in Kitutu Masaba, Nyamira county,” he adds.

It was during his stint at Itibo that recruiting officers from the army identified his talent while representing his school in athletics competitions in Mombasa in 1962.

Tough start

Asati, now a widower and father of 11, joined the army on November 24, 1965, rose to the rank of Warrant Officer Two and retired on December 16, 1986.

During the Army Defence Forces Federation games in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1965 he won gold in 400 and 4×400 metres, which motivated him to go for international competitions. However, international stardom did not come easy. Asati defeated 100 metres and 200 metres champion John Owiti in the trials for the 1966 Commonwealth Games in Nairobi and qualified to represent Kenya in Jamaica but did not go.

“I won but was left out due to lack of experience. They took Owiti but I never gave up,” Asati told People Daily at his Iringa village home in Nyamira.

Life in retirement has not been a bed of roses for Asati as for all his fame, he has nothing to show for it.

“When we won gold in Munich, the late President Jomo Kenyatta directed then Vice President Daniel arap Moi to ensure we were allocated pieces of land but we have not received anything to date.

It is imperative for the national and county governments to set aside funds annually to support veteran athletes since some live in deplorable conditions,” says Asati.

Money over country

“Some of our best athletes are acquiring citizenship of other countries due to attractive packages. We have to reverse the trend for our country to be the best globally,” he adds.  Since Asati’s exploits, Kenya has struggled to make an impact in sprints only managing a few medals continentally with the late Nicholas Bett’s surprise gold medal in 400m hurdles in the 2015 World Championships in Beijing, China the only exception. So what could be the problem?

“During our time, we put country before self. Money was never a factor as we ran for honours. Unlike nowadays when winners receive monetary rewards, we were recompensed with blankets and the like. We, however, took it in our stride,” says the 72-year-old.

Asati has been a lonely man since losing his wife Rose Kerubo in January 2017 and kills his boredom by tending to his tea and coffee farms as well as resolving community conflicts.

“ I removed the army uniforms, athletics spikes and replaced them with farm tools. I am proud of what I did for my country in the armed forces and in the tracks,” says the staunch Seventh Day Adventist who lives with his grandchildren.

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