No matter the circumstances under which it visits, death is never easy. Yet some deaths seem more painful than others. When a parent buries a child, the cut feels deeper. And when the burial happens soon after the child wins a gold medal in one of the largest sports events in the world, the shock is numbing. Almost paralysing.
Paralysing enough to make one hold on to a phone number as if it were a necessary body part. Remembering bits and pieces of memory every time you scroll past that contact. Sometimes you smile. Sometimes you laugh. Other times you shed a tear for no apparent reason then dust yourself off and remember that life is indeed fleeting.
Some memories however are worth hanging onto. Forever. Memories like Nicholas Bett’s unbelievable 47.7 seconds during the 2015 World Athletic Championships in Beijing China. Nothing, not even his death on August 8th 2018 can erase them.
Bett never set out to be a 400metre hurdler. In fact, he never set out to tear up the track. His joy lay elsewhere, in the 60ft by 30ft rectangle cut into two adversarial halves by a 7 feet high net. He was first a volley ball player. Or so he thought. Unknown to him, outsiders had already seen a path that would suit his as well as his older brother’s lanky frames perfectly.
He was the volleyball team captain for Cheptil High School in Nandi County. A school he captained to the top in the East and Central Africa Secondary Schools games. Under him, Cheptil won gold.
After they sat their secondary school examinations I received a call from the Kenya Defence Forces coach, who wanted to take them to the barracks in Nanyuki for athletics as they await recruitment,” his father Joseph Boit told Distory. The Bett brothers had already started attracting scouts. And more would come knocking even before they had gotten used to life out of school.
“Two days later, coach Isaac Kirwa of the Kenya Police came to our home and said he wanted to take my sons to the camp in Embu. I agreed. And that’s how they ended up being recruited,” says their father.
After training, Bett was deployed as a traffic policeman based in Kisumu while his older brother Henry Koech is an officer attached to the Anti-Stock Theft Unit in Gilgil. Their path though was predetermined. Careers in the uniformed forces were just one page in the book of their lives. Stardom, particularly for Bett, lay in wait. And when it presented itself, Bett grabbed it with all he had and held on to it until he ran out of breath.
Unlike the people he idolised, he still didn’t have an entire wall dedicated to his track prowess. There are no trophies blocking light from all directions. There are no gold medals from earlier races weighing down entire sections of the house. There are no newspaper cuttings.
The only thing pointing to his athletics career is a sole accreditation badge from the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth games in Scotland. He came in a distance fifth in the first heat of his specialty race out of breath and running rather untidily effectively being knocked out of the competition. He was in lane 6. A year later, while in lane 9, he ran the race of his life.
Growing up following the heels of an older brother, Bett quickly learnt what he needed to do to catch up to and run shoulder to shoulder with his elder brother, who for most of their lives was always the bigger man physically.
“I noticed their talent and their love for athletics when they were young. When Bett was 12-years old, he could challenge Koech on the racetrack. They prepared a track around the compound and I made hurdles for them using twigs,” says Boit, who also doubles up as an official of Athletics Kenya, the sport’s local governing body.
Now that the wounds have healed a bit he can talk about his departed son, the pain only lessened by time and the fact that he has another to think of as well.
“I encouraged them to take up hurdles because I knew they could make it. This is a technical event that needs a lot of preparation and few people excel in it.”
Their father would know about the technicality of some disciplines. He was a high jump athlete of some repute. He believed to some extent that the boys had at least inherited some bit of athleticism from him. So he pushed when the boys slackened and encouraged when they needed a shoulder to lean on.
In a year’s time, now finally able to beat his older brother during their daily sprinting sessions, Bett felt he was ready to take on the world. He obliterated the field in the National trials for the World Championships. He had dominated a few races in the athletics calendar in the season leading to the World Championships. In fact, he was so good, he was heading into the championships as the fourth ranked athlete.
When the Kenyan national athletics team to the 2015 World Athletic Championships was introduced to the country’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta at the Moi International Sports Complex Kasarani, Bett received some unusual attention from the President Kenyatta.
Uhuru hugged him and whispered something to him.
“I wondered why the President singled him out from the whole team. Their conversation was the first thing I asked him about when he came home from Nairobi,” Bett’s mother, Esther said from the family’s home in Lemook Village in Uasin Gishu, some 360 kilometres west of Kenya’s capital Nairobi and famed for being the country’s bedrock of distance running talent.
Whether by design or default, Esther says, the President had a special message for her son: “Young man, remember the Kenyan flag must always fly high. That’s what I expect from you.”
The then 23-year-old Bett could do nothing but promise to do his best.
Under that Glasgow accreditation badge hanging from a living room wall in his house is another memory worth holding on to.
A TV decoder bought specifically so that his wife Gladys could keep abreast of her husband’s races during the completion.
“I warned him not to let us watch him stage poor runs,” Gladys says.
Then it happened.
Police reports indicate that on August 8th 2018, Bett hit a bump at full speed on his way to the capital Nairobi before losing control, veering off the road and landing in a ditch. The impact from the accident too much even for a world champion. He died on the spot.
It’s five years since that memorable race and two since his death. Yet, as an avid sports journalist, it is still hard for me to erase his phone number from my memory. It jumps out anytime I dial a number that has similar digits to his.
Death may be painful. But it also gives us the opportunity to remember the best of times we had with the departed. For me, one of these memories will be the shrieking by the African team of journalists covering the 2015 World Championships in the bird’s nest.
There was Bett. Put on Lane 9 which is one of the worst for athletes because without competition on both sides one might easily be ran out of the race, starting like a thoroughbred off the blocks. Focused only on one thing, the gold at the end of the 400m hurdles rainbow.
He took the first hurdle with flawless ease. Chest puffed out. Twelve steps between each hurdle. When he reached the final stretch, his chest was out even further, arms moving rhythmically like a switch timepiece. At the second last jump he lay way back. But when his toes touched the ground after that jump, he outpaced Yasmani Copello from Turkey, Michael Tinsley from the USA as well as race favourite Kerron Clement. Still this wasn’t enough to take him into the lead.
Then he started to eat the ground. When he hit the ground after the last hurdle there was only one thing in his mind. Winning. His arms were on overdrive. His head started jerking from side to side. Knees pumping, blazing past Dennis Kudryavtsev from Russia. When he looked up next, he was well out of reach from the other runners. Close to two metres were between him and Kudryavtsev who finished second.
“There goes Bett smashing his personal best out of the water,” the race commentator said. And winning gold while doing so!”
Everything else faded to back. For that one moment, for those seconds, Bett proved to us that no human is limited. He announced his arrival on that day but his departure came soon after.