Becoming the best sports journalist.

Award-winning Celestine Olilo on what it takes to succeed.

Of all the fields within journalism, it’s easy to dismiss sports journalism as a frivolous undertaking pursued only by thrill-seekers out for an adrenalin rush. But Celestine Olilo, sports category winner of the 2019 Annual Journalism Excellence Awards, shows that it’s not about the niche you are playing in, it’s about the type of player you intend to be. 

Her story, Rotting in jail: The footballing talent we waited for in vain tells the tale of footballers who forced to look for alternative means to survive, turned to crime and ended up in prison.

“One of the friends I grew up with, a footballer, was incarcerated. He came out after 7 years and mentioned there were others in there and that they had even started their own teams because they were in jail for life. I did the story and lobby groups came in after and appealed. The case was re-opened and two of them have since been released.” 

While the subject matter was footballers, she managed to take a story about sports and turn it into a commentary on wider social issues: of a broken economy and unemployment. Her story showed how the system allows people who would otherwise be on their way to greatness, slip through the cracks and become criminals. In a big way, Celestine’s story showed how the economic system has almost virtually criminalized life itself. If anything, these footballers that ended in jail had it lucky. The fact that young men are killed extrajudicially in informal settlements on an almost regular basis, no longer even makes the news. 

The gravitas of her piece aside, there’s also the manner in which it touched such a nerve that lobby groups emerged to make interventions on behalf of some of the footballers whose cases had not been looked into, and led to their release. It is a fascinating exposition of the power of a well-framed story, as well as the power of the media. 

Her grasp of the power of story is remarkable especially given the fact that she is relatively new in the media, having been in the industry for five years. And then throw in the fact that she is something of an oddity, being a woman in the highly male-dominated sports journalism sector. But that’s where passion trumps everything else. And for Celestine, this passion emerged from a childhood spent engaged in sports with her brothers and her brothers’ friends. 

This passion would remain all through school and college, and after attending the 9 month incubation period at the Nation Media Group media lab, she chose to focus on sports journalism. She had earlier attended Maseno University where she did a degree in Communication and Media Studies, and then a masters in Development Communication at the University of Nairobi. 

Today she is a full-time print journalist at Nation Newspapers, but also reports for television and radio. Her excellence has shone through so much that she is now the editor of the My Network pullout in the Friday Nation. 

There’s a certain gravitas, a deep engagement that comes through in Celestine’s journalism, that shows that she gives deep thought to her work. Sports is anything but a frivolous engagement for her. She is using journalism to transform and grow in the sports sector. This is the intention that shines out in her work. And it has continually been recognized. She has previously been nominated for the AJEA award thrice, and in 2018 came in second place for the global AIPS Sport Media Award.

How does one achieve excellence as a journalist? “You must carry yourself with integrity otherwise you will be compromised. Journalism is a calling, it’s not a job. The way they say that a doctor’s mistake can kill a patient is the same way that a journalist’s mistake can ruin someone’s life. For those just getting into the sector, they need to keep in mind that the big money will not come immediately, they need to stay committed and work at establishing themselves as a brand. Once they do that the money and the fame will follow. But the hard work and commitment come first.”

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