Before the national team set off to Guiyang, China for Saturday’s World Cross-country Championships, Uganda Athletics Federation (UAF) president Dominic Otucet talked big. He was so confident the team would leave China with nothing short of gold.
“For the first time we are big contenders for gold in both the individual and team categories. I can confidently say that we are winning gold this time,” Otucet was quoted by New Vision last Wednesday.
Technically, Otucet wasn’t the best person to make such a bold prediction since he wasn’t in camp with the team but he surely had a brief from the coaches on how strong the squad was.
With two world champions in Joshua Cheptegei (10,000m junior) and Stella Chesang (junior mountain running) teaming up with Commonwealth 10,000m double gold medalist Moses Kipsiro, Otucet had every reason to be optimistic. This was undoubtedly one of the strongest squads Uganda has assembled at the event.
Kipsiro, Cheptegei and Chesang were all tipped to win individual medals.
And with the trio coming tops, Uganda looked in the frame for at least three team medals. That was until Kipsiro, the most successful Ugandan cross-country runner, withdrew from the event protesting UAF and Uganda Police’s reluctance to reprimand coach Peter Wemali, who has continuously tarnished the image of the sport.
Team in disarray
Wemali works for both institutions and was last year accused of sexually harassing junior female runners during a training camp for the Africa Cross-country Championships.
Kipsiro’s withdrawal left Team Uganda in disarray.
Cheptegei was the first to admit that Kipsiro’s leadership would be missed in Guiyang. But even without two-time world cross medalist Kipsiro (2009 sliver and 2010 bronze), there was still hope of a good harvest in China.
But on the day, the two big names didn’t show up. Cheptegei, regarded as the top contender in the 8km junior men’s race, lived up with the lead pack for the opening three laps but shockingly faded to finish 11th.
Cheptegei didn’t run like the man, who commandingly, romped to World University Cross-country and World Junior Championships 10,000m gold medals last year. Even the assuredness he showed while clinching the Africa Junior Championships 10,000m gold in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia early this month deserted him.
Chesang, the reigning World Mountain Running Championships gold medallist and Africa Junior Championships 5000m bronze medalist, too read from Cheptegei’s script by starting strongly but engaged the reverse gear to finish 11th. Only the senior women’s team saved the day for Uganda, winning bronze – their first ever medal in four attempts – at the showpiece.
“To be sincere with you, I expected a better overall performance,” coach Nalis Bigingo, who handled the team in camp for three weeks alongside Benjamin Longiross, said yesterday.
The two coaches were dropped from the travelling contingent.
“I was shocked Joshua didn’t get a medal. But since I didn’t travel with them, I can’t tell you what exactly went wrong but Kipsiro’s absence could have affected the team’s morale,” added Bigingo.
Longiross chipped in: “I expected more from the team after all the hard work we put in in training,” UPDF’s Longiross said.
“It’s clear the absence of their captain had an effect on the performance. You see, you can’t be on the frontline without a commander. Kipsiro is the kind of runner you need on such occasions.
He is an advisor, a good leader and everyone on the team believes in him,” added Longiross. “I hope this serves as a lesson. We need to deal with Kipsiro’s situation decisively and have him running wholeheartedly again. He is a very gifted runner and the country can’t afford to lose him.”
What followed after Saturday were murmurs in the athletics fraternity that the country’s best runners put up a half-spirited display to show solidarity with Kipsiro. It’s possible they protested, albeit in a smarter way. “You can’t rule that (strike) out,” Kipsiro said after watching the races on television.
“They may also not be striking but like I told you earlier, a runner must be mentally settled to perform well even when they are very fit. And the truth is that almost everyone on that team is unhappy with the way certain issues are being handled.”