After a dazzling and memorable performance that saw Kenya write history by topping the 2015 IAAF World Championships in Beijing, the athletic stars jetted back home yesterday to a heroic reception.
Luggage trolleys were put aside as scores of sports lovers and patriotic Kenyans embraced the triumphant athletes at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport’s (JKIA) arrivals terminal.
At the airport, Ezekiel Kemboi – who made personal history by bagging a fourth world steeplechase title – led the team back home as a constellation of camera flashes illuminated the stars’ faces.
The capital, Nairobi, shed its “busy” tag to join the celebration, as the vehicles that ferried the athletes did a noisy and colourful lap of honour along the streets.
In Beijing, the athletes set the Bird’s Nest National Stadium’s red tartan on fire for nine days, re-affirming to the world that the country is home to pedigree sporting talent.
The fact that two athletes tested positive for banned substances and marathon silver medallist Hela Kiplagat missed a flag were eclipsed by the overall performance.
The #HotbedOfChampions Twitter handle was trending as Kenyans basked in the glory of topping the medals chart with seven gold medals, six silvers and three bronze for a cumulative 16 medals.
Jamaica had seven gold medals, too, but Kenya beat it to the second slot due to its higher number of silvers. The United States, which has finished first for 14 editions, settled for third place.
Deputy President William Ruto led politicians in welcoming the athletes at the airport.
Governors Cleophas Lagat (Nandi), Alex Tolgos (Elgeyo Marakwet) and Jackson Mandago (Uasin Gishu) were all at the airport where they scrambled to claim the “Championships” bragging rights for their counties in the talent-rich Rift Valley.
The DP had to wait a little longer to deliver his short speech as songs and cheers that traditionally usher in the world beaters filled the airport.
“Our team has really made us proud. Our athletes have confirmed to the world that Kenya is a land of opportunities and talent,” said Mr Ruto.
One of the most notable performances came from Julius Yego – known to many as the “You Tube Man” – and little known Nicholas Bett.
Yego – who started off his career by throwing sharp sticks during his childhood in Tindiret, Nandi County before watching videos on “YouTube” – wrote a new African and national javelin record of 92.72 metres, which was the furthest throw in 14 years. He won the Commonwealth Games title in Glasgow, Scotland, last August.
Yego, a police officer attached to the Directorate of Criminal Investigations, bagged gold, the first ever non-track World Championships title for the country.
Bett won Kenya the first ever gold in 400 metres hurdles, a race traditionally reserved for Jamaica, Great Britain and the US.
His Simat village in Uasin Gishu County burst into celebration as memories of the 22-year-old pinching his father’s shoes to hone his sprinting skills resurfaced, albeit this time for a good reason.
Kemboi, while proudly waving the national flag as captain, said he was happy that his promise had finally been fulfilled even as he nears retirement.
“I have represented my country for the past 15 years and my aim was to see my country win the overall title, it has!” said Kemboi.
The team was later to be treated to a sumptuous breakfast at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre. President Uhuru Kenyatta will host the triumphant for a national breakfast on Thursday.
Athletics Kenya vice-president David Okeyo said the performance was a result of carefully executed plans.
“We did a lot. We had 10 golds in mind but the three we lost were both marathons and women’s 800m. We call on all Kenyans to support us in bringing up talent in sprint and field events; there’s big talent here,” Okeyo said at the KICC.
Exploits by athletes in the Police Service and the Kenya Defence Forces ordinarily earns them promotions. Kemboi’s hat-trick in the 2013 Moscow World Championships saw him elevated to the Presidential Escort.
Telecommunications firm Safaricom promised to continue sponsoring athletics in the country as it gave a Sh5 million reward for the team.