Time for sprinters to stand up

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NAIROBI, February 12 – If all goes according to plan, Nairobi will be invaded by athletes from across the continent during the 17th CAA African Championships in Athletics.

Tentatively, the event shall run from July 28 to August 1. The use of probability here is because as late as Thursday, the event’s Local Organising Committee (LOC) chairman, Isaiah Kiplagat, was still talking of the ‘event being lost’ following the alleged reluctance by Directorate of Personnel Management to sanction payment to technical officials required for the championship sourced outside government circles.

However, we shall not dwell on the politics that have seen the event endure more false starts than allowed in the sport it is seeking to celebrate.

Assuming there will be an opening ceremony on July 28, the task will be on Kenyan competitors to put up a show deserving their status as the ‘Brazil of African athletics’.

While no one can doubt mid and long distance runners who line up in the famed red, green and black strip will be among the medals, the nation is seeking to augment the medal tally through sprint, barrier, field and combined events.

The noble target is not without foundation since the country has given the continent some of the finest sprint, barrier, field and combined event athletes over the years.

They include Daniel Kimaiyo who won the 400m Hurdles gold at the inaugural AAC in 1979, Jacinta Serete (Long jump gold 1983), 4X400m Relay men (gold 1979/82/ 85/ 89/ 93 and 2006), 4X400m Relay (gold 1982, 84) and Seraphina Nyauma (women Javelin gold 1990/92).

Others are Ruth Atuti (women 400m gold, 1982/84), Alice Adala (women 100m gold 1982), Charles Kokoyo (Decathlon gold 1982) and double Shot Put gold winner Robert Welikhe (1989/90).

However, since the turn of the century, Kenya has dimmed as a force in sprint and field events such that at the last edition at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2008 Kenya only won a couple of silver and a bronze medals.

Florence Wasike (women Heptathlon) and the women’s 4X400m Relay team anchored by a certain Pamela Jelimo accounted for silver medals while Sammy Keskeny took bronze in the men’s Javelin competition got medals.

As Kenya prepares to welcome Africa, Athletics Kenya (AK) was jolted to address the urgent need to improve training standards for sprinters and field athletes pledging to pour money.

That was towards the end of last year and almost a month into 2010, this website ventured out to access how what is turning out to be the cursed lot of Kenyan athletics is doing.

The venue is Nairobi West Prisons grounds off Langata Road where as the simmering rays of the morning January sun that is back with vengeance after flood rains delayed its emergence descend on the murram-tracked pitch.

Here at the run down facility that is a throwback of an era gone by judging the tearing main stand in the middle, Thomas Musembi a member of the winning men 4X400m relay quartet and Wasike are surrounded by a cast of established and aspiring athletes all hoping to line up in the Kenyan colours come July.  

Under the watchful gaze of Kenya Prisons sprints coach, Esther Koech, the only female coach of her nature in the country, the group huffs and puffs as they go through their stretching routine, warm-up exercises and then intervals. They have been like this since October last year, such is their determination to be at their peak come Nairobi 2010.

National sprints coach, Stephen Mwaniki steps in to gauge what is going on, the portrait is complete and as the runners and field athletes toil in good spirits with doing well for their motherland the biggest motivation, it is not lost on their sweaty faces they are struggling.

“I’m preparing well and want to concentrate on my training since it is my wish to perform well when the Africa championships come home. I know we (sprinters) can make it and the federation needs to concentrate more on us,” Musembi begins when he slows down from the arduous session for an interview.

“While I can say the federation, our department and coaches are doing something, it is not enough if we continue not getting enough exposure, training facilities, a tartan track to train, access to a good gym and proper diet,” he declares.

“At the moment, we are training individually. All sprinters from all divisions (Police, Armed Forces and Prisons) need to be brought to train together. We need help to go outside to compete and more of us need to be taken for specialised training,” Musembi, who went to United States for a month in 2006, added.

“With what I learned there, I was able to lift my performances in Mauritius.”

Next is the affable Wasike, who is aspiring to go one better and get Heptathlon gold in Nairobi and if the programme allows, she would also compete in the women’s 400m Hurdles.

“To be a good multiple event athlete, you need total sacrifice,” she details adding, “You have to persevere since preparing for seven events is no joke though I’m ready to do my best.”

In Addis Ababa, below par showing in High jump, Long jump and Javelin events cost her gold that went to Nigeria’s Patience Okoro who amassed 4906 against Wasike’s 4867-a thin margin.

“For me to improve in those events, I need special coaching and equipment such as shoes for Javelin, High jump and Long jump. The federation should also encourage many female athletes to take up Heptathlon even at school level to increase our chances.”

She echoed Musembi saying, “Short distance athletes need exposure and use of a proper stadium, here (pointing to the Prisons grounds) we can sustain serious injury and therefore, cannot train with confidence.”

So far, only two athletes, 400m male hurdler, Silas Katonon and 400m female athlete, Joy Zakari who crashed out of the first round at Berlin World Championships are out of the country for specialised training.  

A group of field athletes under German coached former Africa medallist, Elizabeth Olaba, are training at Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani although their fate remains unknown following the closure of the facility for a year for renovations.

After allowing the athletes resume their training wondering aloud what world 100m and 200m record holder, Jamaica’s Usain Bolt would make of preparing for a championship under such conditions, this website moves to AK headquarters to seek official answers to the sprinter’s plight.  

Once there, AK chair, Isaiah Kiplagat expresses his shock the sprinters are training under those condition saying, “We have already agreed with Sports Stadia Management Board (SSMB) who have invoiced us what we need to pay them for athletes to use the facility for free,” he starts.

“I agree, we have some shortcomings and problems with sprint and field athletes. To train sprinters it requires the use of high-tech equipment and expensive gyms and unfortunately, we do not have these in plenty in our country.”

The chair discloses that retired multiple Olympics and World Champion sprinter and field athlete, Carl Lewis was interested in coming to the country to train our sprinters ahead of Nairobi 2010.

“We are also looking for a coach from South Africa to train our field athletes and we hope the equipment we have ordered for Nairobi 2010 will arrive here in good time to be used by our sprint and field athletes to prepare for the Africa championships,” Kiplagat says.

Also in the pipeline is a corroboration between SSMB and AK to set up an ultra modern gym at the premise vacated by Postal Corporation of Kenya at Nyayo but in the interim, the federation was hoping to lease an established gym for athletes to use in the run-up to the continental championships.

“We will do well in sprints but in field events, we are still lagging behind North and West Africa countries and it will take time for us to catch up,” he assesses.

One can only hope for the sake of our versions of Bolt, LaShawn Merritt, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Alison Felix et al AK are not monkeying with their promises.

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