Kenya should use the London Olympics to strengthen unity among its ethnic communities ahead of an election that has created fears of a return to the violence of 2008, gold medallist Wilfred Bungei has said.
The now retired athlete won the 800 metres four years ago and said Kenya’s best ever Games performance in Beijing helped to heal the nation.
“We had just come from a bloody presidential election in which thousands of people were either killed or displaced from their homes,” Bungei, Kenya’s Olympic captain that year, told Reuters.
“Our performance in Beijing was celebrated by all Kenyans, regardless of tribe, race, religion or class. The celebration was significant in that it united a nation that earlier that year was on the brink of a civil war.”
The fighting, which erupted after a disputed presidential election that pitted President Mwai Kibaki against Raila Odinga, engulfed several areas including Eldoret and Kapsabet — which produce many distance runners.
Calm returned after the two signed a power sharing deal in February 2008.
The late Samuel Wanjiru — who clinched Kenya’s first ever men’s marathon gold medal in Beijing — was a member of the Kikuyu tribe, which was being chased out of Eldoret and Kapsabet by the native Kalenjin during the violence.
After the country’s Olympic success, Kikuyus and Kalenjins danced together to celebrate.
“That is what made my leadership of the team to Beijing even more fulfilling than my own 800m victory,” added Bungei, who will be heading to the London Games from July 27-August 12 as a television commentator.
He said Kenyan politicians should emulate the country’s athletes and sports fans by shunning tribalism when voters go to the polls in March next year.
“When our athletes go to the Olympics, they don’t go as Kikuyus, Kalenjins, Luos, Mijikendas or even Kambas. They go as Kenyans,” Bungei said of a nation with 42 ethnicities.
“When the national flag rises above others, and the national anthem is sung, all Kenyans sing along. That is the spirit that we need to cultivate among Kenyans and for posterity.”