Kampala- A Ugandan athlete finishing last at a world meet rarely causes uproar. It’s normal because Uganda Athletics Federation (UAF) hardly sends well-grilled teams to represent the country.
This time, though, Uganda’s performance at last weekend’s World Relays in Bahamas has got many in the athletics fraternity raging with fury. UAF fielded a team of four in the men’s 4x800m relay at the inaugural world event. The team finished ninth, last to be precise, 45 seconds behind winners Kenya.
While the performance was expected basing on the individual runner’s ability, the basis on which the team got selected is the subject of debate. Started by Wesonga Wegulo, a Kenyan journalist, who mocked Team Uganda before the event, the Bahamas performance is only rivaled by the recent athletics sex scandal in terms of raising debate on social media.
Julius Mutekanga, Geoffrey Akena, Peter Agaba and Peter Okwera, all USA-based, carried Uganda’s flag in the Bahamas race.
“I did not see the 4x800m relay on TV, and only seen the result on the internet. Did someone in the Ugandan team pull a hamstring (i.e. get injured) during the race? How on earth could they only manage 7 min 53.34 sec (i.e. an average of 1 min 58.3 sec),”Kevin O’Connor commented on a post on ATHLETICS TALK, a Facebook page dedicated to the sport.
As a trained athletics coach, O’Connor likes tackling the smallest of details.
“These people have brought shame upon this country,” O’Connor later told SCORE in a telephone conversation.
Of the four representatives in Bahamas, only Mutekanga is a seasoned 800m runner. He has represented Uganda at the Olympics and World Champions and his credentials can’t be doubted.
Although transiting to middle distances from sprints, Akena is not yet in his best shape after a long injury lay-off while the other two are traditionally long distance runners. “From a coaching perspective, and given that I don’t have full info available, I would say that only Mutekanga could be pleased with his performance - a 51sec first lap was brave, but too fast, especially as he was running by himself.
With a slower first lap, Mutekanga could have gone well under 1.50. Regretfully, the other three legs were poor by elite male standards,” O’Connor added on the post that has attracted over 120 reactions and several shares.
To show how awful the team was, he later suggested that Uganda could have done better by replacing Akena and Okwera with the country’s best female runners Dorcus Ajok and Winnie Nanyondo.
Of the four, it was only Mutekanga, who deserved to make the trip.
The rest were simply thrown into the deep end. They were venturing in unknown grounds.
Predictably, Mutekanga was the best performer, clocking one minute, 50.5 seconds in his two-lap assignment. Agaba, who ran the opening leg, was good for 1:57.4. Okwera emerged with 2:02.2 while Akena came home in 2:03.2.
Team Uganda’s cumulative time of 7:53.34 was nearly 20 seconds slower than that of eighth-placed Slovakia. Okwera and Agaba were donning national colours for the first time and questions are now being asked as to why UAF didn’t send the country’s best 800 runners? “You see, some of those runners on the team are apologists for the current UAF administration.
They are political athletes and are getting rewarded,” coach James Mugeni, who fell out with the federation a few years ago after disagreeing with their methods of work, said. “We lack focus, we lack ambition as a country,” he went on. “Look at Kenya for instance, they planned for the event way in time and fielded a well-polished team. As a result they returned with about Shs1bn in prize money.”
UAF organising secretary Faustino Kiwa, who has been sighted by many as the dictatorial force in UAF said the four runners financially catered for the trip.
“We did not foot any of the four athletes’ bills to Bahamas,” Kiwa,who also heads the UAF technical team, said. “I will not say anything if it [the allegation] comes from Athletics Talk,” in a fuming tone, Kiwa added. “So let those who posted about that in the group give you the information you need.” UAF general secretary Beatrice Ayikoru did not pick our repeated calls. While UAF officials decried lack of funds to facilitate Uganda-based runners like Ronald Musagala and Jimmy Adar to Bahamas, it’s very hard to defend the team selection.
Fielding Musagala, with a 1:45.71 personal best time and Jimmy Adar (1:46.36); running alongside Mutekanga (1:46.30) and maybe Charles Awor, who has consistently posted under 1:50, or a runner like Jacob Araptany, Uganda could have posted a top-three finish.
Such a placing would have assured the team of at least Shs40m in prize money. This money was enough to cover the trip expenses and have the balance injected in the development of the sport.
“Our sport is managed with a lot of arrogance, impunity and dictatorship. When you question UAF’s decisions then you are out of order,” Mugeni noted. “For instance, who can explain to us how that relays team was selected,” he asked.
“Recently, a Commonwealth Games team was named without holding trials. What was the basis? How and why was Moses Kipsiro dropped?” “It’s a big scandal but everyone is looking away. No one seems to care about a sport that has brought so much glory to the country. It is going to the dogs.”
As far as scandals go, this is one of the worst in Ugandan sport. But because it is athletics, the unfortunate incident has almost passed without notice.
Had it been soccer, a game so venerated in this country, heads would be rolling. For instance, there is a bitter public outrage over the new Uganda Cranes jersey. Soccer fans feel the national team, playing Madagascar in a Nations Cup qualifier at Namboole today, deserves to dress smarter.
The Cranes jersey is currently the major issue of discussion among the country’s soccer lovers.
Yet this is just a jersey. More horrible things have happened in athletics. The sexual harassment, Kipsiro mistreatment have all been treated lightly and forgotten.
The Bahamas scandal will also be discarded soon and pushed under the carpet.
And if an accidental medal is collected at the Commonwealth Games in July, the country will celebrate wildly. The cycle will start afresh. That’s the kind of mediocrity defines Uganda’s athletics, according to Mugeni.
World relays prizes
1st – 50,000 (Shs128m)
2nd – 30,000 (Shs79m)
3rd – 20,000 (Shs51m)
4th – 12,000 (Shs30m)
5th – 10,000 (Shs25m)
6th – 8000 (Shs20m)
7th – 6000 (Shs15m)
8th – 4000 (Shs10m)