Monday, 31 March 2008

World X-Country Championships- Is Kenya X'ed ?

The Winner's Podium for the Men's Senior Race

From the weekend’s activities at the world cross-country championships, I’ll not say I’m surprised with what went on in Edinburgh for the Kenyan team. I’ll also not be surprised that the usual excuses will crop up this time with an even better rider; it was because of the post-election violence!
I’ll not dwell on the latter since I guess it’s still a sensitive topic given that most of our athletes come from parts of the country which were most affected by this. But let’s evaluate this from a critical point of view;
Kenya last won the senior men’s individual title in 1999, since then, it has been a losing battle, and each year it ebbs away even further. Back then, Ethiopian athletes had started emerging given the challenge made by Haile Gebreselassie who has often said that Bekele is the athlete most likely to succeed and maybe even exceed his exploits, then left the trail for Kenenisa Bekele who has scorched the events and this weekend made history by becoming only the first man to win the senior men’s title 6 times. At the peak of his time, the guy could win the junior men’s title on one day and follow it up with the senior men’s race on the other.

Bekele: 'I thought I told you so !

How can this be you ask?
If you look at the training regime of our athletes and that of the Ethiopians, there is a telling difference. First, the Ethiopians will go into camp almost 3 months before a major event. Thanks to their authoritarian regime which supports them immensely thus letting the athletes have a sense of privacy and non-distraction when training. The athletes are also culturally well in tune with their country’s heritage and will at all times seek to retain it thus. (It’s worth noting, there are very few if any athletes who will attempt to change citizenship in this country).
Back to the training, the athletes have for long be known to have a lethal last-minute kick, which has devastated their opponents (ask Paul Tergat from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics to the 2000 Sydney Olympics). As for endurance, the Ethiopians highlands have helped these athletes develop breathing techniques which aid in their longevity in lasting any race from 5-42km race. Look at all world records starting from the 5000m to the 42km marathon event.
As relates to the cross-country, this is where they have perfected the art and seem to have stronghold for years to come. The event is usually a run of 6-12 km depending on the seniority and its run in a couple of laps on a marked course. The course has ups and downs and muddy as well as rough stretches. This makes it very tricky for runners.
As is with any event, technique and skills have to be applied to their maximum for one to win the race. Last year’s event was one of the trickiest in the history of the event, with the low altitude and humid conditions taking their toll even on Kenenisa Bekele himself. But this is always expected as the weather is usually another condition that makes the race interesting.
The Ethiopians have managed to raise their bar and won most of these events in recent years thanks to strict management by the minders and also a sense of national pride in winning. Most of their athletes have learnt not to participate in just any race (especially the energy-sapping Grand Prix events, which our Kenyan brothers have flooded by their droves). They also retain a manageable number of athletes hence its easier to determine who runs what and where.
Ours has been a generous feeder programme which produces so many athletes that at times I even lose track of them ( honestly tell me 3 member of the team in the 2006 World Cross-Country Kenyan team, anyone try ?) An another issue of concern is our technical expertise, surely if for the last 9 years, Kenya hasn’t won the individual title after 2 of its own had won the race 5 consecutive times (John Ngugi between 1984-9 & Paul Tergat 1994-9) then something is wrong.
Part of the problem I’ll apportion to the Athletics Kenya officials, some of whom I guess it’s time they called it quits. These guys need to act as advisory to a new team or move on with other careers altogether. Theirs has been a sojourn into the unknown fields of heartbreak of loss. This to some extent affects the technical bench which is always seconded to the team by this ‘journeymen’. I’ll hope athletics enthusiasts and practitioners will see to this when elections are called up.

Far right: Genzebe Dibaba eventual winner of Women's Junior race

Another bone goes to the athletes themselves. When the country lays much hope on you, it only follows that you honour them with your best performance. What happens when you are out there running? Do you do it as an individual only after fame and the lucrative race that then proceed through the season, or is there a sense of pride in what you do? Look at other athletes, most of whom relish their wins albeit when they turn up 2nd or 3rd in a race. Maybe it’s the Government’s role that hasn’t been really motivational (though that seems to be changing though slowly) but then when our two heroes won their races, not much in terms of motivation was in pace (both served as Army men during their careers and one still serves).
I’ll not expect much of change next year and it pains me if no fundamental plans are made to ensure stifling of this decline. To make matters worse the same will most likely be duplicated in the junior world championships and Olympics at Beijing.

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