An ocean away from Rio 2016, another Olympics is about to take place. This is the Maasai Olympics, where warriors hunt for medals and the prize could be to emulate the most famous Maasai of all.
Two-time Olympic champion and 800m world record holder David Rudisha is one of the most famous Maasai in the world. But while 21-year-old Rudisha was breaking his first world records in 2010, the friends he grew up with in his native Kenya were going through a different rite of passage – lion killing. Had he not been in Europe chasing records, he would have most likely joined the rest of the men in his age group in chasing lions. Despite missing out on the tradition, he returned a hero.
“They made me a leader,” he recalled. “I didn't have to kill a lion. They say breaking two world records was more significant.”
Lion killing dates back centuries in Maasai culture. However, commercial hunting has seen lion numbers plummet, and outisde of the Maasai the practice has become morally unacceptable. Killing them in Kenya is now illegal and warriors can face prison as punishment.
Recognising the danger of the practice, the fathers of the Maasai warrior generation in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem, at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro in southern Kenya, asked the Maasailand Preservation Trust to help them eliminate lion hunting from their culture.
“One of the solutions was sport,” explains Jeremy Goss of the Big Life Foundation, a wildlife preservation charity working with the trust.
Maasai warriors compete in the 800m
While many of the best athletes in history hail from Kenya, the path from the Amboseli-Tsavo region to international athletics is not well trodden. “For people here running has never really been an option, no one understood that athletics could actually be a career,” Goss explains. In 2012, the Maasai Olympics were born as a way to promote sport and fight against hunting.
“It was a brand new idea,” says Goss. “A lot of educational meetings took place. A lot of discussions whether it would be something the warriors want to be involved in.”
In Rudisha, who had just smashed the 800m world record by winning Olympic gold at London 2012, there existed the perfect model of Maasai success. As well as prizes of cash and cattle for sporting achievements, at that inaugural event awards were also handed out for the best conservation record. The Maasai Olympics were a hit.
Six events are contested: Rungu throwing for accuracy, the 200m sprint, javelin throw, high jump, 800m and 5000m. The competition is divided into three levels: local, regional and ecosystem-wide competition.
The Maasai Olympics version of the high jump
Just like for any other sporting event, preparation is key. On a local level, the warriors receive basic sports training before competing for selection to one of four teams across the ecosystem representing their warrior manyatta (village).
Once the teams are trained, conditioned and ready to compete, six regional competitions are held between July and October. The competition reaches its climax in December on Olympics Day. Though women don’t compete as part of the main programme, they “play a very important part in the Maasai culture,” according to Goss. They contest in special 100m sprint races.
And although competition plays a huge role in the project, wildlife preservation and education is the main focus for organisers. Their ultimate aim is to explain how lion killing is unsustainable, and how the warriors are in a position to save the future of these animals.
“The Maasai would suffer and you would be held responsible,” the warriors are told in an educational film called There Will Always Be Lions?, which is shown and discussed during the training process.
David Rudisha (left) presents prizes to the winners of previous Maasai Olympics
This year sees the third edition of the Maasai Olympics take place on Saturday, 10th December, at the Sidai Oleng Wildlife Sanctuary. Rudisha, the project’s most famous patron, will once again be present to cheer on the warriors and hand out prizes as well as advice. The organisers recognise that the growing biannual championships represent a unique opportunity to discover a new generation of Kenyan athletes.
“That is something we want to focus on strongly in the future,” says Goss, who hopes to use the off-years to “focus more on athletics and the proper training side of things”.
He explains: “In the long term we hope to identify some of the talent that is out there, give them exposure and bring in top-level coaches to help them develop into professional athletes.
“We haven’t got to that level yet, at the moment all the training is done by local coaches, but the vision is to bring in more professional coaches in the future.”
To learn more about the Maasai Olympics, visist www.maasaiolympics.com
Highlights from the inaugural Maasai Olympics in 2012