Features 1st June 2017

Becky Kamau & her fight to be a Kenyan Olympian

In 2012, Becky Kamau and her family moved from Kenya to Birmingham, England, so that the talented swimmer could have access to better facilities in a push to compete at the Rio 2016 Olympics. However, despite holding seven long course Kenyan records and seven in short course, Kamau was not selected for Rio. The story behind why the Olympic dreams of Kenya’s best female swimmer were dashed has little to do with sport, but concerns the politics and rules of international swimming – as well as an official accused of selling official Kenyan Olympic kit destined for Rio 2016 athletes…

Becky Kamau was the only Kenyan swimmer to achieve the female qualifying times for the Rio 2016 Olympics, swimming under the ‘B’ qualifying time of 2:18.96 for the 200m individual medley and 2:31.62 for the 200m breaststroke. Becky had been focussing on the Rio Olympics since she broke the Kenyan national record at the British Swimming Championship Olympic Trials in Glasgow in April 2016. However, she had been training for Rio even before then.

“Becky achieved her qualification during the British nationals in 2015”, says her father, Kiruri Kamau. “That was a whole year before the Olympics. Becky is the fastest female Kenyan swimmer ever in her events and achieved the qualifying time. That, in itself, is something to be celebrated. Becky was only 15 – 16 in July. She was still in the Juniors. We knew that there were three competitions that she could be entered into – the Junior World Championships in Singapore, the Kazan World Championships in July and the African Championships in Brazzaville in September. They were all held within six weeks of each other. We thought it was just a question of choosing.”

However, what followed had very little to do with swimming, and more to do with the politics of Kenyan, African and international swimming. “For us it’s just a story of straightforward corruption, and it’s been going on for a number of years”, states Kiruri.

Locked out of the Olympics

In 2015, Becky and her father had cause for concern when she was selected for the international swimming federation’s (FINA) 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia, the All Africa Games in Brazzaville and the World Junior Swimming Championships in Singapore. Apart from the three competitions being staged in different continents, they were also due to be swam within six weeks.

Becky and Kiruri thought that three major competitions within such a short time period was unrealistic, and asked if she could go to the Junior Championships in Singapore. The next edition of the Junior Championships were scheduled for Indianapolis in 2017, by which time Becky would be too old. “When they contacted me I told them it would be throwing her in at the deep end to select her for Kazan”, explains Kiruri. “Why not let her make a proper progression through the Junior Championships?”

The 2015 World Aquatic Championships were held in Kazan from 24 July to 9 August and the FINA Junior Championships were held in Singapore from 24 July to 9 August. Kiruri accepted the KSF’s explanation that it was not necessary to send Becky to Kazan, which would also have cost the family money and been inconvenient. What they didn’t tell him is that technically, this made Becky ineligible for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

This is because FINA had changed its rules in March 2015. ‘NOCs with no swimmers who have achieved an OQT / “A” Time or who have been selected by FINA for an OST / “B” Time may enter a maximum of one (1) man and one (1) woman (Universality Places), provided that those swimmers participated in the 16th FINA World Championships in Kazan in 2015 and are approved by FINA to compete’, reads FINA’s qualification criteria for Rio 2016. ‘These swimmers may be entered in one (1) individual event each’.

As Becky hadn’t competed in Kazan she was locked out of Rio. “They didn’t tell us participating in Kazan was a condition and that was deliberate”, says Kiruri. “Anyway, as Kenya’s best swimmer they should have forwarded her name to FINA to be considered for the ‘wildcard’ option – universality places – but they did not. Instead they conveniently hid under the Kazan technicality, a rule introduced late by FINA as an afterthought and which they themselves did not strictly adhere to.”

Universality places allowed countries who had no swimmers with an ‘A’ qualifying time or a selected ‘B’ time to enter up to one man and one woman for Rio, providing that one of them competed at Kazan. For example, if a country has a male swimmer invited, they can invite a female swimmer under the universality rules, however each can swim in just one individual event.

Alleged corruption

So there was still a possibility that Becky could be selected for Rio. However her chances were once again scuppered by the KSF which – Kiruri alleges – had long decided which swimmers they were going to send to Brazil. It appears that national federations had discretion over who to send to Rio, as the FINA rule requiring participation in Kazan 2015 was not applied universally. In other words, it appears that the KSF wanted to send other swimmers to Rio irregularly and FINA allowed it to do so.

“There were countries which sent swimmers to the Olympics who never went to Kazan and who didn’t have qualifying times”, alleges Kiruri. “When we contacted them after Becky was left out, they admitted that they gave discretion to the national federations to decide who is going. FINA acknowledged that Becky is the best swimmer from Kenya, but said that it didn’t want to interfere in the decisions of the national federations.”

The KSF chose to send Hamdan Bayusuf and Talisa Lanoe to Rio. Why it did so is not immediately clear, but Kiruri suspects backroom mischief. Both were recipients of an Olympic Solidarity scholarship provided by FINA and the National Olympic Committee of Kenya (NOCK) – which, again, were awarded secretly and without any discernible criteria.

It would not be the first time that a national federation has wanted to put forward the athletes in which it has invested, irrespective of the fact that other athletes may have recorded stronger performances. Nicole Cooke, the first ever cyclist – male or female – to become road race World Champion and Olympic champion in the same year (2008), has made similar allegations that British Cycling favoured cyclists on the World Class Performance Programme (WCPP) for major events, despite her superior performances.

Although it might appear obvious why the KSF chose to send swimmers to Rio for other than sporting considerations as Kiruri alleges, the situation is complicated. The matter also involves a Kenyan swimming official who recently made international news for selling Olympic kits from under the noses of Rio 2016 athletes.

Ben Ekumbo and Kenyan swimming

Earlier this year, Ben Ekumbo stood down as Chairman of the Kenyan Swimming Federation (KSF), an organisation he had Chaired since 1978, but only after a series of incidents made his position untenable. Ekumbo, who was also Vice President of NOCK, was found hiding under his bed after being implicated in an investigation into missing money and kit following the Rio 2016 Olympics.

Kiruri is hopeful that Ekumbo will eventually be prosecuted for his part in allegedly stealing Ksh1,050,000 (€9,000) in kit and cash. In court, Ekumbo claimed he didn’t know who had deposited the money in his account. “I got the impression that he was mitigating his case by undertaking to refund the money”, argues Kiruri. “However he has admitted it, so in theory he should be convicted”.

Ekumbo has been a member of the KSF since 1978 and has been Chairman since 1985. “He has been running it like his own private fiefdom”, complains Kiruri. “My story with Ben Ekumbo started about ten years ago. Becky had just started swimming. I started getting interested in what goes on once she started swimming competitively. I realised that there was a lot of corruption. There was no accountability, so I started asking questions. The next time we went to a gala, my daughter was disqualified. The guy who disqualified my daughter was a member of the General Assembly of NASA – the Nairobi Swimming Association. He was the younger brother of Ben Ekumbo. The Kenyan Swimming Federation was being run by two brothers. One was the Chairman, the other was the Secretary General.”

“We had video evidence that Becky had not done anything wrong, so I contacted Ben and told him what had happened”, explains Kiruri. “He promised to look at the whole thing, but never came back to me. A few months later, in a national age group meeting, Becky won a silver and was supposed to receive the medal the next day. When we went there the next day, she was not even on the podium. Ben’s brother initially said that it must be a mistake, but later said that Becky had been ‘upgraded’ to a bronze. He told my wife that we should be grateful that they had even done that. Most parents chose to give up. I didn’t.”

Ekumbo is also being investigated due to allegations of sexual assault against minors, reports the Kenya Citizen. However, despite the charges against him, he was freed on bail in December. It was reported that Ekumbo planned to step down from the KSF once an Interim Committee consisting of four members of the national body’s Executive Committee has been convened to replace him. However, until 1 June, he was still listed as a member of the FINA Bureau, which governs world swimming.

In August, Kenyan Minister for Sport, Hassan Wario, disbanded NOCK and transferred its responsibilities to State Organisation Sports Kenya. A new NOCK constitution has been formulated, and elections are now scheduled for 21 June, following arguments over who will be allowed to stand due to the ongoing corruption inquiry.

The significance of this for Becky and Kiruri is that the IOC is withholding all funding from the NOCK until the elections are held. Becky is hoping that she will be eligible for funding under the Olympic Solidarity Programme to compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. However, with the KSF and NOCK in such a state of disarray, it currently appears unlikely that they will be able to offer any assistance in terms of applying for funding to send Becky to Tokyo.

Meanwhile, Becky has been admitted to Northwestern University, which has raised her profile and partially relieved Kiruri’s fears that the KSF will not support her bid to compete in Tokyo. “We would still welcome a leg-up from Kenya”, he says. “These scholarships should be given on merit – not because somebody has been bribed”. However, time is on Becky’s side. The IOC confirmed that the Olympic Solidarity scholarship programme for Tokyo 2020 will not start until September.

Kiruri suspects that the problem runs much deeper than Ben Ekumbo and the KSF. It is a question of entrenched culture of bad governance in sport in Kenya generally and the patronage of Ben and his clique by FINA. “They have known Ben Ekumbo has run KSF without transparency for many years”, he argues. “There was even an incident of sexual molestation of swimmers which was swept under the carpet. Ben is a member of the FINA Bureau. He is also the Vice President of National Olympic Committee of Kenya (NOC-K). We initially appeale

Until 1 June, Ekumbo was still listed as a member of the FINA Bureau.

d to Kenya’s Minister of Sports as soon as Becky was excluded, and he ordered that Becky be included, but they failed to do so. The reason is that FINA backed the decision of one of its own, Ben, because he is a member of the FINA Bureau. They need Ben in Africa because he is also Secretary General and Treasurer of the Confederation of African Swimming (CANA). He is one of the longest-serving members.”

“It’s just like FIFA”, he continues. “The African block is huddled together for one guy to keep him in place. The US are fighting a lot with FINA [click here for more information]. You have these smaller countries that have a federation of one or two people who have a vote, and Africa is one of the biggest blocks. Therefore it is almost impossible to fight Ben at that level, because they want him there. However, I understand he has been voted out of CANA. Once you are not a member of the continental body, you cannot be a member of the FINA Bureau.” Yet until 1 June, Ekumbo was still listed as a member, as a cache of FINA’s website attests.

Bouncebackability

To her eternal credit, Becky has not let the ongoing drama affect her performance. Yet to have her Olympic dreams cruelly and apparently deliberately dashed did initially have an impact.

“Becky was devastated when she found out she was not going to Rio”, explains Kiruri. “She was ready and we had made arrangements. We had not been given any information that she might not go. All along, our communications with Ben gave us the impression that she was going. However in two days, she decided that she was not going to let it get her down. She sprang back faster than we did, and concentrated on the British nationals, which were due to happen in two weeks. She got two silvers and a bronze, and broke the Kenyan record by four seconds.”

Kiruri’s pride in his daughter shines through. “She’s a very strong girl”, he explains. “When she was interviewed by Kenyan radio, she said that she hoped that there would be a silver lining from all of this, and her troubles would change the way in which Kenyan swimming is run. This has been a problem she has faced for many years. She was even left out of the Commonwealth Games, despite having won eight medals – seven of them silver. We had to fight so hard to get her on the team. The best swimmer was left out of a team of 12 or 13 people, because I ask questions and am considered a trouble-maker. But the fact that I refuse to keep quiet is changing Kenyan swimming.”

“The fact that we are fighting what is going on in swimming helped people in other sports”, he continues. “For example, athletics is regarded as a cash cow for Kenyan sport, however people have now come out and have started talking about what goes on there. We knew things were happening before, but nobody spoke about it. The case of Becky became national news – everybody was talking about it.”

Kiruri is therefore confident that Becky will take her place on the starting blocks at Tokyo’s yet to be built Olympic pool, all things being equal. “Becky is OK”, he says. “She will go to 2020 and she won’t need a universality place, because she will have a qualification”. That must come as a huge relief to the Kamau family.

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