One day, Bernard Manenge was minding his own business on the streets of Nairobi when a young man snatched his gold-plated necklace and tried to run away. “Ben” as the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) veteran likes to be called, chased him down and confronted him over the theft. Confident he could crush Ben, the young thief challenged him to a fight. Ben used Taekwondo—A Korean martial art emphasizing spectacular kicks—to thoroughly beat the thug, and after he defeated him, offered to change his life by teaching him the art.
After that fateful beating, life changed forever for the young hustler. His name was George Muriu Chege and he went on to become Kenya’s most successful Taekwondo National Team coach after he brought two of his students to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
George had to work hard to rise from his humble beginnings to the top job in Kenyan Taekwondo.
Retired KDF Major Suleiman Sumba met George in 1991 when one of his KDF trainees played George in a Taekwondo bout. Major Sumba saw potential in George and the two men started a Taekwondo Academy. George was determined to make his pupils the best.
Major Sumba remembers those days vividly:
“The driving force behind George was the anger to achieve.”
But when the pair brought their students to the Pan African Games their determination was not rewarded.
“We did so poorly, says Major Sumba. “I told George: “Look at our performance. We have not heard one single national anthem of Kenya.” I could see he was touched.”
George’s resolve to lead Kenya to Taekwondo glory on the international scene only strengthened. He travelled to Korea where he learned the training techniques that are used there to nurture young talent so successfully—Korea have won the most Olympic Taekwondo Medals since the introduction of the art as a full Olympic sport in 2000—and excelled in many competitions.
When he returned to Kenya, success soon followed the implementation of the new training regimen.
At the following Pan African Games, George’s pupils won two gold medals. For the first time in Taekwondo competition history, the National anthem of Kenya echoed through the venue.
Major Sumba takes particular pride in the success of the Kenyan athletes. “We were telling these Africans that we had come, we were here! That was a big achievement.”
Domination of the Olympic trails soon followed, and since George’s students made up the majority of the team, he was made the National coach. Success at the 2007 Olympic qualifiers in Libya meant Kenya —in another first for the East African country—would be represented in the Beijing Olympics the following year.
Preparation through competition in Europe and Korea left George’s athletes as ready as they would ever be for their greatest challenge yet. It was at moment that tragedy struck for George’s most gifted student, Dixon Wamwiri. Devastated by the loss of his mother Dixon lost in the first round. George’s star female student, Milkah Akinyi came in fifth. For George and his pupils, the Olympic campaign had not been a successful one. But nothing could dampen his sense of purpose. He and his athletes returned home from China more experienced and with the future shining brighter than ever.
After bringing two of his students to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, George Muriu was determined to grow his team and empower them to reach for the Olympic gold. But after bitter infighting at the Kenyan Taekwondo Federation, George was stripped of his position as Olympic coach. After his death in 2012, Geoge’s family and students were not just left with fond memories: they had a legacy to uphold.