Isaiah Kiplagat, the ‘Fundi’ who fixed Kenya’s athletics

Isaiah Kiplagat, the ‘Fundi’ who fixed Kenya’s athletics

Isaiah Fundi Kiplagat, who crossed the finish line in the ultimate race of life on Wednesday morning in Nairobi, is the man who almost singe-handed- like his middle name means in Swahili-fixed Kenya’s athletics.

He bestrode the sport like the proverbial colossus in a manner and fashion that will almost certainly, never be replicated as he rose to be ‘Mr. Athletics.’

Having served the sport for 50 years, 24 as the undisputed leader of Athletics Kenya (AK) Kiplagat was a revered no-nonsense administrator who brooked no argument and dissent.

These were the qualities needed to navigate the murky waters of the country’s best sporting export where conflicting interests and now, the huge money involved, bred cut-throat competition in the battle to control its resources.

Known for his strict sense of timing, Kiplagat, 72, bowed out at the helm of AK having led his country to top the medal charts at the biennial IAAF track and field showpiece in Beijing for the first time in history.

Fittingly, he lived long enough to witness Kenya’s best ever performance at the Olympics driven by the athletes he so cherished and fiercely defended, often stepping on the toes of those in power as a succession of sports ministers who had a brush with him will testify.

Many an athlete, foreign agents, fellow administrators, government officials and journalists fell foul to his aggressive style of management as he battled for his sport to cut its niche but behind the tough exterior Kiplagat was, a man passionate about success and who was surprisingly easy to get along with as long as you were in his good books.

Often, he was portrayed as an emblem of the problems affecting athletics, sometimes on fair grounds, but no one will doubt the fact that he took over a federation that was stripped to it bare bones in 1992 as well as a sport whose glory was fast receding and turned both into what Kenyans are celebrating today.

The AK headquarters located off Nairobi’s Aerodrome Road behind Nyayo Stadium, which he was at the heart of erecting, will remain the enduring legacy of the man who fell from grace when he was suspended by the IAAF Ethics Board for the first time last November before it was extended after the expiry of the initial six months in April.

-Big Three-

Kiplagat was part of the ‘Big Three’ that included his suspended vice-president and long-serving secretary general, David Okeyo and former treasurer, Joseph Kinyua, who turned the national athletics governing body into one of if not the richest federation in the country.

He recruited them to execute his vision for modernising AK based on the qualities he saw in them and overlooked the tribal factor with his kinsmen harbouring the belief they ‘owned’ athletics since they contribute most of the honours the country has won in the sport.

Born on November 12, 1944, the man whose middle name is Fundi, Swahili for craftsman, moulded the federation he joined in the mid 60s into a concern that runs on a Ksh150m or more annual budget and it stands as the only local sports governing body that does not need Government funding or hand outs to run.

Kiplagat oversaw the transition of athletics from the analogue amateur time to the digital age where it has turned fully professional and evolved to be a billion-shilling industry and leaves behind a vibrant and functional secretariat.

He was a member of the IAAF Council, the powerful body that governs the sport worldwide, from 1999 to 2015 and his influence was notable in forcing the hand of the international federation to accede to the interests of the continent.

The highlights of his extended reign saw Kenya host the World Cross Country in 2007 in Mombasa, becoming the third country after Morocco and South Africa to hold the now biennial global showpiece.

In 2010, his unrelenting stamina to take on a reluctant Government and its bureaucracy saw Kenya finally host the 2010 Africa Athletics Championships after three postponements that the hosts went on to top with 11 gold medals, a record performance at the event.

He also led the bid that saw Kenya secure the rights to host the 2017 IAAF Under-17 World Championships in Nairobi ahead of USA and before he was forced out of office, guided the team that returned home as global champions for the first time in history where he appointed, Kinyua who was voted out of AK national office in the last elections, as Team Manager.

With his priceless collection of witty and sharp sound bites, Kiplagat who did not shy away from speaking his mind was a prized source for sports journalists across the land who held in awe and disdain in equal measure.

His love-hate relationship with the press led him to tell this writer once, “I can count the number of journalists who went against me since I joined this sport in 1964 to date who have found me and left me here,” as he went on to list their names.

Kiplagat was first elected into national office of the then Kenya Amateur Athletics Association (KAAA), the forerunner to AK in 1975 as the vice-chairman, a position he held until 1987 when he was elected the secretary general.

He served at the post for two years until he was again elected as the vice-chair in 1989 until 1992 when he succeeded the late Paul Boit at the helm and among the first things he did was to switch KAAA to AK.

“I was the chef-de-mission for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico where I watched Kipchoge Keino win gold. That was when I decided I would go for an elective post,” the man who was the Managing Director of Postbank from 1988 to 2002 when he retired stated.

The former herds boy who rose to be a prisons officer recalled the time when he took over the reins of the federation.

“Back then we neither had offices, money nor equipment to operate the association activities yet we had already gained recognition across the globe and quick action needed to be taken urgently,” the administrator who was born in Nandi to a humble background and was forced by his mother to go to school added.

Kiplagat was employed as a Cadet Officer and authorised to establish a new post in Naivasha when he went through prisons training in 1965.

He travelled to the UK in 1969 to further his education and returned to be employed as a council worker in 1975.

Under his watch, AK secured prime property in Nairobi including the space adjacent to Nyayo National Stadium and plans are underway to construct a hostel to be used to accommodate athletes as well as private guests.

AK also owns a travel agency as well as other valuable movable assets that are the envy of many federations since it is the only governing body capable of running its programme with little help.

Nike International, Safaricom and Kenya Commercial Bank are among the major sponsors channelling hundreds of millions into AK’s coffers who were attracted to the sport by the structures in the place at the federation that guaranteed a return on investment.

-Dictatorial administration-

Former Athletics Kenya (AK) President, Isaiah Kiplagat (L) and his vice David Okeyo (C) are entertained by World 3000m SC champion Ezekiel Kemboi at the Nyayo National stadium during the Olympics Trials of 2012. Photo/Stafford Ondego/
Former Athletics Kenya (AK) President, Isaiah Kiplagat (L) and his vice David Okeyo (C) are entertained by World 3000m SC champion Ezekiel Kemboi at the Nyayo National stadium during the Olympics Trials of 2012. Photo/Stafford Ondego/

Despite the rosy outlook, the father of five and his henchmen were long accused of dictatorial administration that saw the athletes who are their major resource treated as high school students.

Kiplagat was colloquially called the ‘headmaster’ with Okeyo ‘dean of students’ and Kinyua ‘bursar’.

The only time his unwavering reign experienced a chink in the armour was when he was on the verge of stepping down from his post in 2010 when he was first diagnosed with colon cancer.

An accidental hospital check-up after complaining of pain in Delhi during the 2010 Commonwealth Games where he was attending as part of the IAAF Family culminated in a six-month intensive chemotherapy treatment that proved successful and saw him fend off the ailment that had saw him in and out of hospital for over a year.

However, internal fighting to succeed him that almost tore the federation down the middle saw him return and to the shock of many, stronger and fitter than ever before.

“I decided to come back to give the federation stability and to protect the gains we have made. Internal fighting like football will take us nowhere,” Kiplagat explained to this writer why he ruled against stepping down in 2010 when he battled the disease.

“It has been a tough period for me but the doctors in India who came up with a solution have given me the strength and courage to go on and prove that one can beat this thing,” he added.

He quickly consolidated his choke hold and most of his erstwhile critics as well as potential successors were soon towed back to line.

“As long as he is there, I will never go for any post in AK. There is no way to get rid of him and those who try are painted as people who are against the sport,” former three-time world champion, Moses Kiptanui and arguably his most vocal critic who tried to dislodge the veteran on a number of occasions, said at the time.

“With them managing the sport, athletics in this country will never achieve its full potential. Young runners will continue being misadvised and that is why we have the problems we are having such as cheating since they cannot do anything about it. They are part of the scheme,” the retired athlete added.

In May last year, Kiplagat announced he was stepping aside for three months to focus on campaigning for the IAAF Vice-Chairmanship during the General Congress on the sidelines of the Beijing Worlds, a post he lost when Cameroon national, Hamad Kalkaba, declined to step down in his favour.

He installed his chosen successor, Lt. Gen (Rtd) Jackson Tuwei as interim leader having failed to have the former Army chief take over when he first flirted with quitting his position.

It all started unraveling for Kiplagat in November when the IAAF Ethics Board suspended him alongside Okeyo and Kinyua on allegations of bribery, subverting the anti-doping process and embezzlement of AK sponsorship money from Nike where he was separately charged with receiving two vehicles from Qatar to support their 2019 Worlds bid.

In his unsuccessful appeal against the extension of his suspension from the sport in April, Kiplagat’s lawyers cited ill health as one of the grounds the Ethics Board should lift his ban having had a remission of the disease that in the end, brought down the curtain on a giant in sports management who probably has no equal in the land.

Love him or hate him, Kenya’s athletics has lost its bravest soldier and having kept a pack of wolves intent on gaining profit from the sport at the expense of the athletes at bay, his exit could finally open the door for them to rape the sport if what he established is not safeguarded and improved.

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