Sprints in Kenya

Sunday, 7th March 2010

Athletes should concentrate on specialities

By Omulo Okoth

Stephen Mwaniki and Ezekiel Kemboi have different athletics interests, but share a common fear that their areas of speciality are being raided by people whose interests are not concomitant with the nation’s long-term aspirations.

Mwaniki is a sprint coach for Kenya Prisons and the national team. Kemboi is a steeplechaser per excellence, what with one Olympic and world title and three world silver medals among his enviable credentials.

Mwaniki was in Kisumu on Friday and on Saturday, attending the first of the six Athletics Kenya/New KCC Weekend Meeting at the dilapidated Moi Stadium. Only sprint and field events were being held.

But as the athletes were battling in the 400m on the murrum track, Mwaniki was shaking his head furiously. When I sought to know what the heck he seemed angry about, he said: “You see all this talent will go to waste if it is not nurtured.”

But it is your responsibility to nurture that talent, I nudged him. Mwaniki said candidly the managers will overrule them and draw the athletes towards 800m, 1,500m and eventually, distance races.

Sprint force

At this rate, Mwaniki regrets, Kenya cannot develop a strong sprint force to take on other nations, notably West Africans.

With Kenya hosting the 17th African Championships in July-August in Nairobi, Athletics Kenya will enter athletes in all the 44 races and events, 22 each for men and women. But Mwaniki says the hosts may only dominate distance running, even though there is no guarantee that they would win 5,000m and 10,000m with Ethiopians boasting of their war machine.

Mwaniki’s case is corroborated by records, which show that Kenya has had many good sprinters.

Joseph Gikonyo and Kennedy Ondiek were probably the best known of the last generation. Seraphino Antao stood out among the first generation of Kenyan great runners.

Simon Kipkemboi, Kennedy Ochieng’, Samson Kitur and his brother David Kitur were reasonably well-known sprint giants who almost filled the shoes left by the 1972 Olympic Games 4x400m winners, Robert Ouko, Julius Sang, Charles Asati and Hezekiah Nyamau.

The problem is, whenever sprinters emerge, they are swayed by the money-minting race organisers who persuade them to move up to middle and distance running.

At the Moi Stadium, Mwaniki’s problems are exacerbated by the fact that the track is not even a 400m designated one. It was built during the colonial era and it still uses imperial system, not metric. Yet it is the fastest track in Kenya, where trials for major championships used to be held until 1976 for the Montreal Olympics.

The Sports Stadiums Management Board’s effort to get involved were scuttled by overbearing Municipal Council chiefs, who treat the city as its fiefdom.

Kemboi’s problem revolved around the water-and-barrier race in which only the Kenyan men seem to dominate. Where are their female counterparts? When the steeplechase was introduced a few years back, Irene Lemika caught up the passion very well as this is an event that is naturally Kenyan. But Kemboi regrets that whenever a good female athlete emerges, she is wooed to the road races, leaving world ranked Kenyan women in this race countable on one hand.

The other concern Kemboi shares with Mwaniki is the need to set up camps in various parts of the country, serving specific needs. A sprint camp is long overdue in Western Kenya, notably at lake level in Kisumu or sea level in Mombasa.

Camps that are run by managers are only geared towards immediate results and do not have long term development agenda. It is, therefore, incumbent upon officials to share some of these thoughts with, not just Mwaniki and Kemboi, but the entire athletics fraternity to find a lasting solution.

Kisumu Stadium’s case is pathetic. I have noted that the Government’s agenda for Vision 2030 has provision of a stadium in every province.

They should start in Kisumu and Kapsabet because these are places which produced some of the best-known athletes, yet they are in a state of disrepair. They are an eyesore. As the Government builds roads all over the country, it ought to do something about the stadia.

—The writer is The Standard Sports Editor