African saga

A chance to see Kenya's Noah Ngeny (2389) in action — Photo: Vino John

A chance to see Kenya's Noah Ngeny (2389) in action — Photo: Vino John  

FOR THE first time in Hyderabad, athletes from Africa will be seen in action when the track-and-field events of the Afro-Asian Games get underway at Gachibowli. As is well known the continent has produced some of the most legendary figures in the history of track-and-field and most of them have come up from obscure backgrounds to make a mark at the international level in a sensational manner. Who knows the Hyderabad spectators may be the first to see a future world champion in action, right here at the G.M.C. Balayogi stadium!

African athletes seem to be naturally gifted when it comes to endurance and stamina. Runners from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and Morocco have dominated long distance and middle distance running for several years. There are many theories as to why athletes from Africa are so good at certain events. Some say their spartan lifestyle and ability to withstand hard training toughen them into becoming unbeatable in middle and long distance running which are perhaps the most demanding and gruelling events in any sport. Some say living at high altitude (especially where Kenyans and Ethiopians are concerned) improves their stamina.

Whatever may be the reason, one thing is clear. African athletes have become a force to reckon with throughout the world and the best of European runners with all their back up in the form of scientific training, regulated diet, vitamin supplements and so on, are still unable to match the African runners when it comes to sheer stamina and staying power.

Paul Tergat races ahead

Paul Tergat races ahead  

The feats of athletes such as Abebe Bikila, Miruts Yifter, Kip Kieno, Mamo Wolde, John Aklii-Bua, Said Aouita and Haille Gebreselassie, to name just a few, have enriched athletic championships over the years.

Who can forget the bare footed Abebe Bikila two-time winner of the marathon title (at Rome and Tokyo). He was the first man to win the marathon twice at Olympics. Years of training on rough mountain terrain had toughened this soldier to a level where even an appendectomy operation six weeks before the Tokyo Olympic marathon failed to put a stop to his medal-winning ability. Bikila was unheard of outside his own country before hitting the headlines at the Rome Olympics. He produced an outstanding win smashing the world record with a time of 2 hours 15 minutes and 16 seconds. Later in a car accident he was paralysed from the waist down but he took part in archery competitions for handicapped sportspersons. He passed away in 1973.

His deeds inspired another fellow Ethiopian soldier Mamo Wolde. At the ripe old age of 36 Wolde switched from middle distance to long distance and made the marathon his favourite event, literally following in the footsteps of Bikila. In the Mexico Olympics marathon the unfancied Wolde took up the gauntlet and established an unbeatable lead at the half way mark. After breasting the tape he even did a lap of honour before the second placed Kenji Kimihara of Japan entered the stadium! Wolde's feat made it three marathon golds in a row for Ethiopia in the Olympics.

John Akii Bua of Uganda and Edwin Moses of USA are rated as the best ever in the 400 mts hurdles. John Akii Bua was the first to run the event in under 48 seconds and it was a pity that Akii Bua and Moses never got to fight it out against each other in an Olympic final. Akii Bua used to train while wearing a jacket weighed down with about 12 kilos weights and run almost as much as any long distance runner. Filbert Bayi of Tanzania one-time holder of the world record in 1500 metres is still considered one of the best middle distance runners ever to step on the tracks. He once remarked in an interview that he got all his stamina because in his childhood he ran alongside hunting dogs when hunting for gazelles. When asked how long he could run, he replied that it depended upon the gazelles - how soon they got tired - but never less than ten miles at a time. Kipchoge Keino of Kenya who won the gold in the 1500 mts at Mexico and the steeplechase gold at Munich started a winning tradition amongst Kenyan runners which has been consistently maintained over the years by Paul Ereng, William Tanui, Peter Rono, Noah Ngeny, Paul Tergat and John Ngugi and also Julius Korir, Julius Karuiki, Joseph Keter and Reuben Kosgei who have dominated steeplechase races in Olympic Games.

In most cases, these talented African runners had a humble beginning. But their natural abilities enabled them to taste success quickly and consistently. When they turned on the pace, better-known and more famous rivals wilted under the pressure. Perhaps Hyderabad may see one more chapter being scripted in this remarkable African saga.

Recommended for you