Giant on the move
Kenya, Ethiopia reap rewards from hard work
Kenya’s hope for an Olympic marathon medal were dealt a blow when Robert Cheruiyot pulled out due to injury and three-times London marathon winner Martin Lel’s training was affected by flu. But Sammy Wanjiru saved the day and brought the marathon gold medal, proof that distance running is Africa’s forte.
Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, collected four gold, one silver and 2 bronze medals, showing that poverty does not have to stand in the way of great sportsmanship. Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele both cruised to victory for the 10,000 and 5,000 metres, the first time the double has been achieved since the 1980 Games.
Kenya’s assistant athletics coach put it down to dealing with hardships from a young age and altitude, which helps the athletes deal with hot conditions.
“Our athletes have to walk long distances from a very young age to go to school unlike those in developed countries, so they just get used to it quite early,” Peter Mathu told Reuters. “We are very good at long distance because of the hardships we face. Training at high altitudes has also helped.”
Kenya and Ethiopia’s Olympic success stems from focusing on what they do best and a strong culture of athletics. While other countries see sports as a diversion Mathu said they start identifying and nurturing talent from Primary school.
Kenya and Ethiopia’s victory contrasts the underperformance of bigger teams such as Nigeria and South Africa, the latter having some of the best developed facilities on the continent.
Nigeria’s team official Dony Nezianya was candid in admitting that Africa could learn from Kenya and Ethiopia. “Most of it is just better planning. Kenyans and Ethiopians work very hard at developing their talent and raising the level of their performance,” he said.
Nigeria got three bronze medals in women’s long jump and 4×100 metres relay and heavyweight taekwondo and a silver from soccer.
“We had expected to perform better so this calls for sober reflection on our part,” he said.
Perhaps embarrassed by getting only one silver medal in long jump after sending the biggest team ever to the Olympics, South Africans did not want to comment.
But sports development looked set to remain a challenge for the continent where funds are directed to more pressing issues as millions live in abject poverty. Athletes that are now competing for other countries on lucrative deals say the migration could continue if earning a living as remains difficult.
PHOTO: Tirunesh Dibaba of Ethiopia leads the pack on her way to winning the women’s 5000m final at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games August 22, 2008. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez