Olympics with a Twist

Killing the ‘King of the Jungle’ has traditionally been seen as a rite of passage for young Maasai men, with solo hunts long viewed as the pinnacle of masculinity. In more recent times however, due to dwindling lion numbers, solo hunts were discouraged by the elders in favour of group excursions. Now they want them stopped outright. Lion populations have plummeted in recent decades from 100,000 to as little as 25,000, though the Maasai aren’t entirely to blame.

“One day, in 2008, eight elders arrived unannounced at my house in Kenya,” recalls Tom Hill, board director of the Big Life Foundation. “Their spokesman said, ‘Over 4,000 boys will soon be coming of age. We want to end lion hunting. But we have to create an alternative.’ The young men had heard their fathers’ stories and songs about the lion hunt. So we needed to maintain the cultural thing, but replace it with something that wasn’t boring.”

Big Life Foundation was founded by photographer Nick Brandt and award-winning conservationist Richard Bonham to tackle poaching and now protects two million acres of East African land. In 2012, in partnership with the Maasai of Amboseli/Tsavo, they founded the first ever Maasai Olympic Games. Big Life estimates that a decade ago there were less than ten lions in the Amboseli-Tsavo region and now the Kenya Wildlife Service reckons there could be as many as 120 thanks to conservation programmes and the Maasai Olympics. “If I win, I will spend all the prize money to pay for my university education,” Tipape Lekatoo, an 18-year-old Maasai javelin thrower, tells Reuters. He dreams of studying tourism management in Nairobi.

The 5,000m winners are sent to the New York City Marathon courtesy of the Maasai Wilderness Trust. The Maasai, a semi-nomadic group which straddles southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, are among Africa’s most well-known populations, famed for their courage and colourful dress. But, as important as it is to preserve tradition and uphold ancient ways of life, one custom, the slaughter of lions, is thankfully being eradicated to be replaced with the tribe’s own take on the Olympic Games.

Maasai attitudes — and lifestyles — are rapidly changing as western culture is embraced. “You can’t kill a lion, because they can support you,” says Maasai warrior John Kapande. “The tourists will come to see that lion. That will pay for school fees and help us.” Many wish to move away from the nomadic ways and have taken to wearing western clothes, carrying phones and even having Facebook profiles. Their biennial ‘Olympic’ project has been greatly boosted by the support of David Rudisha, a Maasai who won the 800m gold medal at the 2012 London Games. “David Rudisha didn’t become famous because he killed a lion,” says Daniel Sambu, a Maasai running the Big Life Foundation’s Predator Compensation Fund who advises potential athletes. “He became popular because of his running skills.”

The Olympian also attended the very first African event and offered to help train local long distance runner Jacob Lemaron for the New York City Marathon in 2013. “New York City was very different than any place I’d seen before,” Lemaron later told the Wall Street Journal. “It was very cold, but I stayed warm by running.”