Attitude stands between Kenya and success in sprints

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By Kenyatta Otieno

At the 2017 World Athletics Championship in London, sprint legend Usain Bolt bowed out on a low by winning a bronze in 100 metres and then bowing out injured in the 4X100 metres relay. Omar McLeod won the only gold medal for Jamaica in the 110 metres hurdles to take their tally to four medals, including three bronze medals. This was a low for a nation known for sweeping the sprints at international meetings. Jamaica holds a four-day High School athletics championship that is simply known as Champs. It is big. During the event, everyone identifies with their school; adults even go out in school uniform to cheer their teams.

As Jamaica goes back to drawing board after the poor show in London, it is worth noting that their success in the sprints is not magical or a product of chance. Currently, 12-year-old Brianna Lyston could be the successor to Bolt after surprising many by her display in sprints at the 2017 Boys and Girls Championships. In Bolt’s style, Lyston swept the 100m and 200m events, where she also set a new record in 200 metres. Yes, at 12 years of age, future champions have already been identified; Jamaica knows there is nothing like overnight success stories.

Kenya sent five sprinters to London. For the first time, Mark Otieno represented Kenya in 100 metres coming 4th in Heat Four, clocking 10.37 seconds. Collins Omae came 8th in 46.10 in the 400-metre heat; Raymond Kibet came 5th in 45.75 seconds in Heat 5; Boniface Mweresa qualified for the semis as the sixteenth best-timed athlete, after the first fifteen were picked – they were required to clock 45.58 seconds. He came 8th at 45.93 seconds in the semis. In the Women 400 metres race, Maximilan Imali failed to make it to semis when she finished 7th in her heats at 53.97 seconds – American Allyson Felix won in 52.44 seconds.

The news came in that three sprinters had made the cut for World Athletic Championships in the National Championships held at Nyayo Stadium on June 10th this year got me intrigued in the story behind their success. Otieno broke the national 100 metres record by clocking 10.14 seconds after winning the 200 metres race in 20.41 seconds. Imali and Omae won their 400-metre races. Imali clocked 51.18 seconds to break a 33-year record set by Ruth Waithera.

This came after Nicholas Bett won gold in 400 metres Hurdles clocking 47.79 seconds at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing. Then Boniface Mucheru won silver at the Rio Olympics last year in 47.78 breaking Bett’s national record as well. The writing was clearly on the wall: we have concentrated on middle and long distance races yet we have potential in the short races too.

This sent me to Nyayo Stadium on June 24 to witness the sprints as AK held the second trials for qualification for London 2017 in August. No one registered qualifying time in the short races though. I spoke to three sprinters and two coaches as well as a host of several sports journalists, and arrived to the conclusion that our stagnation in sprints is more an attitude problem than it is about challenges on and off the track.

Work to be done

The performance in London is an eye opener. In as much as we have the potential to break into the sprints stage at the global level, there is work to be done. According to former Sevens Rugby national team conditioning coach, Geoffery Kimani, who is current coach to Omae, success in sprinting requires adopting the science behind sprints. He says even if AK brought the facilities without good coaches adopting modern expertise in sprinting, we will not see any major improvement. He lays the blame squarely on coaches because he says AK organises trainings but coaches do not want to apply what they learn.

Omae is a former Sevens Rugby player who decided to shift to athletics. Omanyala, a Chemistry student at University of Nairobi opted for sprints after breaking his collarbone in rugby. It has always been my belief that we can win the short races, and it is reinforced whenever I watch the sensational Khayange brothers, Collins and Humphrey, in the IRB World Sevens Series.

Sevens Rugby is played by fourteen players on a pitch that accommodates thirty players in a 15-a-side match. The runs in the shorter version of the sport require more speed and brain than brawn, and this is what has led me to conclude that Kenya can rule the sprints the same way we have dominated the middle and long distance races. Omae and Omanyala have made the change in good time to prove my hunch right. According to Kimani, several sevens rugby players can make good sprinters. A player like Sidney Ashioya can be world champion in indoor 60 metres race. Humphrey Khayange, Collins Injera and Nelson Oyoo can beat many athletes in 100, 200 and 400 metres.

In sprints, a second is not easy to shed off from the timing. Coach Kimani says that when he took up Omae, he shifted him from 200 metres before going back to 400 metres, where it took Omae a whole year of rigorous training to improve his 400 metres timing from 46.0 seconds to 45.19. Otieno’s goal is to run 200 metres in sub- 20 seconds, where he has 0.41 seconds to shed to attain his best timing. This is where Kimani says physiology, anatomy, and maybe psychology, beats facilities.

IT Consultant and Omanyala’s coach Duncan Ayiemba says that there are only two trained coaches in Kenya – Geoffrey Kimani and one Macharia. Ayiemba met Omanyala in May 2016 in Nakuru during an AK athletics meeting and the two agreed to meet at the University of Nairobi or training. The former UoN student who featured at the World University Games has brought Omanyala from the shadows to a most promising sprinter in one year. He came fourth in 100 metres finals, clocking 10.76 seconds behind the winner Otieno at 10.36 seconds.

Ayiemba says he has tried to lure some rugby players into sprints, but the camaraderie and social life around rugby keeps average players who could make it in sprints in the game. Kimani says that Omae had good speed while in rugby. After his national U19 stint, he received call ups and played in fringe tournaments for the national team but could not break into the first team proper. He began flirting with sprinting in 2010 but took it up seriously in 2012. Geoffrey Kimani has been coaching him on a full time basis since last year.

Professionalism

Prisons’ team sprinter Dan Kiviazi who came fourth in 200 metres at 21.36 seconds says he discovered he could sprint in Form 3 at Friends School Kigama in Vihiga County. He won in the Inter-Houses competition and went on to feature in the nationals. Omanyala was in Form 3 and a rugby winger at Friends School Kamusinga in Bungoma when it dawned on him that he could sprint. He was picked for the national U19 team but failed to show up for the trials. Omae featured for Kenya Harlequins and Mwamba RFC before switching to the track. The new sensation, 24-year-old Mark Otieno says he has loved sprinting since he was in nursery school but decided to take it seriously in 2014, at 21 years.

We seem to be comfortable identifying our sprinters by default – the same approach we follow in middle and long distance races, where an invisible conveyor belt delivers better athletes. Middle and long distance is dependent on endurance, which high altitude and lifestyle in rural Rift Valley regions of Nandi, Uasin Gishu and Marakwet naturally gives. This is not the case for sprints where hard work of thought and time needs to be put to produce a world-class sprinter.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his best-selling book Outliers, says it takes ten thousand contact hours of active practice to make someone a star in anything. This accounts to between 8-10 years depending on the hours one employs. Recently, successful local comedian Churchill celebrated fifteen years in the industry, so this rule seems solid; you cannot cheat the grind. One thing we must work on is identifying our sprinters early enough and letting them clock their contact hours before age 20.

Most of our sprinters are based in Nairobi while the other athletes prefer Eldoret and Iten. This is because Nairobi has lower altitude, two tartan tracks at Nyayo and Kasarani, and good gyms to boot. This is the only place one can meet coaches or people with an idea of what sprinting is about. Ayiemba has improvised training equipment for Omanyala who also trains in a makeshift gym at the University of Nairobi. Geoffrey Kimani, who was the Kenya head coach at 2015 World Championships in Beijing, claims no athlete who went to Beijing had been to weight room in the gym prior to the competition. This affects athletes’ strength and has effects on the maximum speed one can attain.

The disciplined forces also account for our success in athletics. They recruit athletes then give them ample time to train by excusing them from normal duties. A win in World Championships and Olympics always come with a promotion. The assurance of a relatively comfortable life with a salary and later a pension when one retires gives these athletes the crucial peace of mind. The stress of balancing eking out a living and running has led many good runners who would have ended up as exceptional athletes to fall off the tracks. Currently Omanyala’s biggest challenge is footing for training and stadium fees as well as nutritious meals. His coach supports him to foot these bills, but it is definitely not sustainable.

Bett and Mucheru have been forced to train in the Dominican Republic and Europe in preparation for upcoming IAAF World Championships in London. Bett has a wild card as the defending champion but Mucheru is nursing blisters so there are doubts about him taking part in national trials. No one made the qualification time at Nyayo Stadium so Mucheru could still get a reprieve. According to Kiviazi, our sprinters seek facilities abroad once they register good times to compete internationally. Former 100 metres national record holder Mike Mokamba trained in South Africa while Kevin Nkanata, the current record holder, is based in the US.

Our sprinters are forced to seek training facilities and coaches abroad because they feel the people responsible do not see the need of developing these facilities in line with the science of sprints. The aspiring sprinter in secondary school has nothing to hinge his/her belief for greatness on. Kimani disputes this as poor mentality. According to him, Bolt and a host of Jamaican sprint greats trained on grass track at the University of Technology in Kingston. Antony Davis, the Director of Sports at the university believes, just like Geoffrey Kimani, that an athlete’s inner desire to flourish and good coaches override facilities.

Catchment areas

AK has not done enough to promote sprints especially in western Kenya regions of former Nyanza and Western regions. Sprinters come from communities in relatively low altitudes and whose physique gives them more muscles. This means that Kisii, Luo and Luhya communities are the catchment areas where we can get many sprinters. A few years back, one of my friends quipped that Shujaa Sevens should be named “Maragoli Sevens” – when the bulk of the squad was made up of Maragolis.

Athletics agent Gianni de Madonna, current manager to World Record Holder in Marathon Mary Kaitany says that our pool for picking sprinters is not big enough. He points out West Africa and South Africa who have produced some good sprinters as areas with a large pull of communities with tall and muscular people. The best sprinters in the world in the Caribbean and America are black descendants of slaves who were mainly shipped from West Africa. The closest we come to a region with a large pool of potential sprinters is Kisii, Luo Nyanza and former Western Province.

Challenge ourselves

Middle and long distance running is the low-lying fruit that AK picks easily and ripens before presenting them at the world stage. Sprints will need a constant work and belief that we can teach people with potential to sprint and be world champions. The science behind sprinting is the challenge as well as a host of facilities that will require huge resources to assemble. According to one athlete, because sprinters have not been successful internationally, AK tends to overlook most of their needs, preferring instead to spend time and resources where good results lie.

Our preference for the easier way hinders us from achieving our greatest potential. Our sprinters have achieved some progress with very little input. Our timings in 100 metres has stagnated between 10.60 – 10.98 where a majority of athletes are. A few sprinters have managed times below 10.6 but the best is 10.3. To break this ceiling we must engage a new attitude. In Jamaica, the Champs event is only for identification of the best athletes. After that, the work begins and this is how Universities of Technology and West Indies have come in to produce record breakers. Our universities need to get active in developing sprinters also.

Exposure is another key thing. I was disappointed by the attitude of our journalists who did not bother to interview sprinters, especially women in races where no one came closer in the qualifying time. According to one, he came to watch Otieno run. Simple stories from these sprinters can inspire another upcoming sprinter somewhere in the village. The bare minimum we can do for our sprints is to change our attitude towards the races and the athletes involved. ^

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