New: When Africans first participated in the Olympics, their performance was far from being back luster although one runner was sidetracked by a dog.

But now Africans are poised to go for gold in track events at the Olympics in Seoul.

“Everybody is training to beat an African in Soul”, said Robert Ouko, general secretary of the Kenya Amateur Athletics Association.

Kenya will send 75 athletes to Seoul, including John Ngugi, who has won the world cross country championships three times in a row, Douglas Wakiihuri, marathon winner in Rome last year and Ibrahim Hussin, the first African to win the New York and Boston Marathons.

It’s a far cry from 1904, the first time African athletes participated in the Games.

Africans faded from world sports after the Munich Olympics. They shunned the Montreal Games to protest New Zealand’s rugby links with South Africa.

The comeback started with silver and bronze medals Africans won at the 1983 World track and Field Championship in Helsinki, followed by two gold, one silver and three bronze medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

It condemned during the last year’s World Championships in Rome. Runners from Kenya, Somalia and Morocco won every track race from 800 meters to the marathon. The medal haul was five gold and two silvers.

Traditionally runners from Kenya Tanzania and Ethiopia, which is not sending athletes to Seoul, have excelled in middle and long distance races.

This has been attributed largely to the high altitude of their homelands, giving them an advantage at lower levels. But sports officials in Kenya dispute this. They credit athletes’ success to improved training facilities, coaching and prize money athletes get.

Michael Kosgeya, Kenya’s head coach noted that the Nepalese team there finished last. Nepal straddles the world’s highest mountain range, the Himalayas.

Officials say African government has boosted funds to improve sports facilities even when keeping their athletes from the Olympics for political reasons.

“Athletes have become better ambassadors in making their countries known,” said Uganda’s national coach and Olympian John AkiiBua.

“This is why they have shown a keen interest in uplifting standards in athletics”.

Charles Mukora, chairman of the Kenya National Sports Council, said athletes in 1960s and early 1970s were motivated by patriotism alone.

“But you now see a crop of athletes who run for money and there is big money in sports if run professionally,” Mukora said.

Asked why he runs, Ngugi answered bluntly: “To keep fit and for money”.

But officials say the most important factor contributing to African runners’ performances since Helsinki remains the removal of politically motivated boycotts, this means runners participate in races worldwide throughout the year”.

“There is no time for an athlete to sit around unless one is sick,” Ndoo said. “That means continued fitness”.

Among the fittest expected in Seoul, apart from Hussein, Wakiihuri and Ngugi, are Moroccan Said Aquita (5000 meters), Somalian Abdi Bile (1,500 meters), Kenyans Billy Konchellah (800 metres), Paul Kipkoech (10,000 metres), and Tanzanian Suleiman Nvambui, The marathon.

Article extracted from this publication >> July 8, 1988