Olympic glory: In the end, African athletes fail because they succeed

Last Sunday Stephen Kiprotich (Uganda Ltd) won gold in the London 2012 Olympics marathon. With that, he ended Uganda’s 40-year wait.

The last Ugandan to win an Olympic gold was John Akii-Bua in the 400 metres hurdles at the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Either at the Olympics or regular World Championships, it has now become conventional wisdom that the marathon crown will be won by an East African.

In most of the past 25 years that East African has either been Kenyan or Ethiopian. Occasionally an Eritrean has gatecrashed the party.

When Kiprotich (Uganda) won, in many ways it was the wrong Kiprotich.

In the race, Kiprotich battled against the duo of Abel Kirui and Wilson Kiprotich (Kenya), before he blew them out of the water.

It was supposed that Kiprotich (Kenya) would win, according to popular marathon mythology.

So, while Uganda was the interloper, at least an East African won. I totally enjoyed the neighbourly sniping that followed.

Kenyan media, spoilt by marathon victories for decades, crowed that Kiprotich (Uganda) had “stolen” Kenya’s marathon crown.

In Uganda, commentators said that attitude proved why Kenya did badly; the country, one of them said, had a “naïve sense that long distance-racing dominance was its birthright”.

As a result, Kenya had stopped working hard enough.

Kiprotich (Uganda) himself, overwhelmed by his stunning victory, suggested that towards the end he had the race so completely wrapped up that even if he had chosen to walk to the tape, he would not have been caught.

Admittedly, he got carried away there, but one has to admire his pizzazz.

On Wednesday, Kiprotich returned to a hero’s welcome. President Yoweri Museveni has promised him a fat cheque.

The Uganda business community has said it will raise $500,000 for the gold medallist. Within a day of his victory, $100,000 had poured in, and the $500,000 looks likely.

I have this feeling that precisely because of the rewards he will get, Kiprotich (Uganda) will not be a force to contend with in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Kenya has instituted an investigation into its poor show at the London Olympics.

However, I do not think Kenya’s problem is the comparatively poor form it showed at this Olympics.

Its problem is the same as that of the rest of Africa; our athletes do not stay at the top of their game for long.

Ethiopian long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie and, particularly, Mozambique’s Maria Mutola, “The Maputo Express”, are the few exceptions.

In fact, Mutola is one of the less-than-a-handful of track and field athletes to compete at six Olympic Games in the world. The great man, Kipchoge Keino, notched three.

Get comfortable

They are a rare species these days. One problem is that while many of our athletes end up lonely and poor, the few who cash in do so in a very old fashioned way.

In Africa, we still treat the sportsmen who achieve outstanding global success like the generals of old returning from victorious war.

Such generals would be given land, several wives, and titles.

While Uganda had its best showing at the Olympics in 40 years, Britain had its best in 104 years! Yet Prime Minister David Cameron, you can be sure, is not going to give any of the athletes even a pound of taxpayers’ money.

When an African athlete wins two marathons and earns $600,000, he becomes a very rich man at home.

A European athlete will not only pay a huge chunk of it in taxes, but the most that will get them is an apartment in a nice neighbourhood.

When Kenya’s long-distance runner Samuel Wanjiru died in a fall (some alleged he was killed, in May 2011), his story became gripping, in part because of the many women in his life. A war broke out over the wealth his prize had bought him.

The amazing thing about Gebrselassie is that he remained competitive for as long as he did because the chap literally owns half the real estate in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

And that is one of reasons our sports folks do not remain stars in the track and field for long; either they descend into debauchery, their energies sapped by the demands of polygamy, or they become overstretched by the pressures of being big-time landlords.

In short, the problem that the very successful African athletes have is success itself.

cobbo@ke.nationmedia.com and twitter@cobbo3

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