Kenyan athletes have for long been acclaimed as the country's best ambassadors. Their exploits on the track (and field for the likes of javelin champion Julius Yego) have cemented Kenya's place in the sporting world.
The latest exploits of Eliud Kipchoge, who became the first mortal to run a sub-two hours marathon at a specially organised event in Vienna, Austria, captured the imagination of the world and has won him accolades from prominent persons, including former United States President Barack Obama.
President Obama described the feat by Kipchoge as well as that of Brigid Kosgei, who broke the 16-year-old women's world marathon record at the Chicago Marathon a day later, as "remarkable examples of humanity’s ability to endure—and keep raising the bar"
Kipchoge has since sought audience with President Obama, saying it was his desire to promote a running and hence peaceful world. And on Sunday, Kipchoge was celebrated further here at home by being awarded the Elder of the Order of the Golden Heart of Kenya (E.G.H.) by President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Kipchoge was personally decorated by the President at the tail end of the head of state’s speech to commemorate the 10th Mashujaa Day celebrations in Mombasa.
While Kipchoge clocked 1.59.40 in the Ineos 1.59 Challenge, Brigid erased Briton Paula Radcliffe’s time of 2:15:25, which she set during the 2003 London Marathon.
At the just concluded World Athletics Champions in Doha, Kenya came second after US after scooping nine medals, including four gold compared to the latter’s 25 medals including 11 gold.
But amid all the celebrations there are lingering concerns that Kenya hasn’t taken full advantage of the limelight shone on the country whenever her athletes, footballers, volleyballers and rugby players, among others, excel on the continental and world stage.
The government has not only underinvested in development of facilities but it has also failed to take advantage of sports diplomacy, which no doubt holds great potential in bolstering Kenya's foreign diplomacy.
Since he took over office in March 2013, the Uhuru administration has adopted a pragmatic economic diplomacy stance, which analysts say has unleashed many dividends for the country.
The many foreign direct investments Kenya has attracted in recent years are attributed to enhanced foreign policy underpinned by this stance.
Prof Macharia Munene, who teaches history and international relations at the United States International University, Kenya can achieve much more if it takes advantage of sports diplomacy as well.
“It is an area where Kenya can excel but it has problems matching sports excellence with diplomatic prowess,” says Prof Munene.
“There was hardly anyone in the US to support Bridget Kosgei as she broke a world record. Even Kipchoge's great work was more of foreign interests than a Kenyan foreign affairs issue.”
Indeed, sometimes, it gets embarrassing when one sees agencies such as Brand Kenya and Kenya Tourist Board chasing after the success of the country's athletes with congratulatory messages instead of putting them at the core of their activities.
Sometimes, Kenyan teams also struggle with preparations for major tourneys only for the government to seek to take credit for their success.
Yet, history has proved that sports diplomacy serves an integral role in shaping diplomatic relations among nations.
Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau, however, rejects suggestions that Kenya does not celebrate its sportsmen. He says this is “simply untrue and not worthy of their great achievements and the hard work that (Kenyan) diplomats put in behind the scenes.”
“Our athletes do not need to be tapped as sport ambassadors per se, they are already huge international icons and have proved themselves to be ambassadors in their own right,” he says. “They have continued to be our greatest ambassadors since 1963 with the likes of Kipchoge (Keino) and Naftali Temu and many others.”
He, however, admits that more can be done.
“I think it is a good idea that we find ways to work with all great Kenyans who have done great things that have impressed the world and have shown themselves to be worthy of recognition. So indeed it is something that the Ministry Of Foreign Affairs can always do better as we continue to improve our diplomacy in the world,” he says.
According to the US Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, sports diplomacy uses the universal passion for sports as a way to transcend linguistic and sociocultural differences and bring people together.
Participation in sports teaches leadership, teamwork, and communication skills that help young people succeed in all areas of their lives.
It also increases dialogue and cultural understanding between people around the world.
With a huge pool of talented sportsmen and sportswomen, Kenya has no reason to fail to boost her interests and political power and influence globally. Kenya should use sports diplomacy to improve her intermediate and long-term relations with other nations.
Currently, the country is campaigning to clinch a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
Besides its strategic positioning and contribution to UN peacekeeping missions around the world, there is no better opportunity to leverage on sports diplomacy.