NAIROBI, Kenya, Mar 14 – Isaiah F. Kiplagat who has lorded over Athletics Kenya (AK), one of the country’s foremost sports governing bodies like the proverbial colossus since 1992, is reputed as a no-nonsense administrator who brooks no argument or dissent.
Many an athlete, foreign agents, fellow administrators, government officials and journalists have fallen foul to his ramrod straight aggressive style but behind the tough exterior, lies a man passionate about success and who is surprisingly easy to get along with, as long as you are in his good books.
As the countdown to the federation polls tolls towards the April 17 date penned for AK National Elections, there are few who doubt that the veteran administrator will end his extended stay at the helm of Riadha House.
The AK headquarters located on Aerodrome Road behind Nyayo Stadium, which he was at the heart of erecting, will remain the enduring legacy of the man said to be keen to hold on to the post for life.
Kiplagat is part of the ‘Big Three’ that include secretary general, David Okeyo, and honorary treasurer, Joseph Kinyua, who have run the sport in the country almost unchallenged for two decades.
Born on November 12, 1944, the man whose middle name is Fundi, Swahili for craftsman, has moulded the federation he joined in the mid 60s into one of – if not – the richest in Kenya, enjoying an annual budget in excess of Sh150m.
Since 1999, Kiplagat has been a member of the IAAF Council, the powerful body that governs the sport worldwide and his influence has been 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.
With his priceless collection of witty and sharp sound bites, Kiplagat who does not shy away from speaking his mind, has grown to be a prized source to sports journalists across the land who hold him 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.
“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 one-time managing director of Postbank between 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 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 has 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, Kenya Commercial Bank and National Bank of Kenya lead the major sponsors channelling hundreds of millions into AK’s coffers and the sport has continued to enjoy landmark success with the 2008 Olympics, 2010 World Cross and 2011 World Championships counting among the highlights.
Despite this rosy outlook, the father of five and his core men have been accused of dictatorial administration of the sport where athletes who are their major resource being treated as students of a high school of yore.
Kiplagat is colloquially referred to as ‘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 four years ago due to 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 seen 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.
Since then, he has moved to consolidate his choke hold and most of his erstwhile critics as well as potential successors have been compelled to recoil as he went about to even challenge with qualified achievement a requirement in the recently enacted Sports Act that sought to put a cap of two terms for any federation chief in Kenya.
“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, arguably his most vocal critic who tried to dislodge the veteran on a number of occasions, said.
“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 who recently caused a stir with doping claims against Kenyan runners told Capital Sport.
Although he is yet to formally declare his candidature, Kiplagat gave away his intention to remain in power at the Discovery Cross Country race in Eldoret in February when he paraded the ‘AK trinity’ in front of the crowd imploring them to support their leadership.