Kenyan lessons


Every scholar of sport, I guess, keeps a secret list of seminal texts written by somebody else, texts that should actually adorn our CVs; we were just pipped at the post by an intrepid colleague.

Seventeen years ago this month I discovered such a text in London. It was a full-fledged scholarly tome and, if memory serves, the very first purchase I made in the famed Sportspages bookstore (felled by online shopping shortly thereafter). There was no way a running enthusiast addicted to African travels could have ignored the title – Kenyan Running! Haunted by childhood memories of Kipchoge Keino and other ‘exotic’ East African athletes, I had already visited Kenya twice and penned a few journalistic pieces on contemporary Kenyan athletics.

Despite having hardly any knowledge of sports studies, I was somehow able to relish every single page of Kenyan Running. I also published a glowing review back in Finland although, truth be told, I hadn’t read anything else by the lead author John Bale yet. But he had taught in Finland recently, hadn’t he? Soon enough, Kenyan Running won the British Sports History Prize for the best book of the year, after which I could congratulate myself for having recognised an instant classic without expert assistance.

Yet I had to wait for seventeen years to learn about the book’s curious inception. As an academic based at Keele University, Bale successfully persuaded a Kenyan graduate student uninterested in sports-related endeavors to delve into the history of distance running in the former British colony. ‘Between us, I reckoned, he could get a doctoral degree which could be turned into the first real study of an African body-cultural phenomenon,’ Bale recalls in his autobiography A Life in Sport (2013).

The thesis however failed to meet Bale’s expectations, thereby endangering the ‘first real study’ project of his. Clearly the omissions had to be remedied by somebody, and that somebody was Bale himself – the Keele professor keen on comprehending Kenya.

What is the dual authored study all about, exactly? While the title leaves little room for misinterpretation, the subtitle ‘movement culture, geography and global change’ may, I fear, mystify rather than illuminate.

Suffice to say, those who have acquainted themselves with John Bale and Joe Sang’s tour de force need no summaries. As for the others, I believe they really should be left to their own devices. Better to trust one’s own instinct than to risk being lectured by somebody whose views might not be entirely objective. A literary love affair lasting seventeen years surely has its consequences.

The next and long overdue step, nevertheless, would be to apply the lessons of Kenyan Running to Finnish ski jumping, Swedish table tennis and Danish handball, to name but a few decidedly non-African body cultures.


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