Kenya, Ethiopia shine for Africa – By Phumza Macanda, BEIJING (Reuters)
Africans again dominated distance running at the Beijing Olympic Games thanks to Kenya and Ethiopia, but athletes pleaded for more funding for their poor states.
African athletes won 12 gold, 14 silver and 13 bronze medals in Beijing, a slight improvement on their effort in Athens where they picked up nine gold, 13 silver and 13 bronze medals.
Kenya and Ethiopia collected 21 medals between them with officials saying hardships on the continent had helped athletes to thrive in long distance running.
Kenya got five gold medals, five silvers and four bronze despite disruptions in the run-up to Beijing which included the pullout of marathon runner Robert Cheruiyot due to injury while three-times London marathon winner Martin Lel’s training was affected by flu.
Sammy Wanjiru made up for it by winning the first Olympic marathon for Kenya.
“Our athletes have to walk long distances from a very young age to go to school unlike those in developed countries, so they just get used to it quite early,” Kenya’s assistant coach Peter Mathu told Reuters.
Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenenisa Bekele both won gold in the 10,000 and 5,000 metres, the first time the double has been achieved since the 1980 Games.
Africa was however still hampered by lack of funds for sports development and was boosted by athletes based abroad in highly competitive sports.
Zimbabwe’s swimmer Kirsty Coventry, who trains in the United States, bagged four medals for her troubled nation and French-based kayaker Benjamin Boukpeti won Togo’s first ever medal when he took bronze.
U.S.-based Blessing Okagbare, who took bronze in long jump for Nigeria, said she probably would never have qualified for the Olympics if she was still in Nigeria.
Cameroon’s Francoise Mbango Etone made a plea for funding after she retained her gold medal in triple jump.
“It’s not the sponsorship that motivates me, but I want to leave my name in the world … I wonder if I could find a sponsor who could help me and recognize I’m a two-time Olympic champion,” she said.
African born-athletes that compete for other countries, such as Nigerian Francis Obikwelu who runs for Portugal said leaving Africa was the best decision and the continent could continue losing talent if earning a living remained difficult.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)