The name Uganda is lately being mentioned quite often at the grand stage of global athletics.
A handful of elite runners such as Jacob Kiplimo, Winnie Nanyondo, Joshua Cheptegei and Halimah Nakaayi from the Pearl of Africa have worked hard to attract some of the light off powerhouses Kenya and Ethiopia.
Cheptegei is top of that list. He is on course to become Uganda’s GOAT (Greatest of All Time) should he win the 10000m gold medal at next year’s Tokyo Olympics in Japan.
The aura of optimism for his spike is that high because the 24-year-old has amassed eight championship medals, including five since 2017.
And what’s the secret? Cheptegei is part of the NN Running Team, a professional running team based in the Netherlands.
The NN Running Team was started by Dutch athletes’ management company Global Sports Communication (GSC) in April 2017, a few days after Cheptegei painfully withered from the front to finish a distant 30th at World Cross-country Championships in Kololo.
It was set up to provide athletes with access to better coaching, medical care and additional athlete support services with particular progress made in offering regular physiotherapy to athletes in training camps and during competitions.
Three hubs, huge investment
NN Team is mainly focused on road running and marathons and its operations are headlined by sponsors Nike and NN (Nationale-Nederlanden), a Dutch insurance company.
“Basically it’s the concept which cycling teams have but then implemented to running,” said Jurrie van der Velden, who is a GSC manager for Ugandan runners.
The NN Team has three main hubs; Kenya headed by Eliud Kipchoge and Geoffrey Kamworor, Ethiopia led by Kenenisa Bekele and Birhanu Legese and Uganda by Cheptegei and 2012 Olympic marathon champion Stephen Kiprotich. Europe is led by Abdi Nageeye, Bashir Abdi and Julien Wanders.
“In Uganda, we have a strong focus in the Kapchorwa area as the NN Team is aimed for road and marathon running. They don’t have a focus on track hence no track athletes, only a few like Cheptegei and Kissa who combine track and road,” says Jurrie, who began representing Ugandan runners with GSC in 2007.
52 wins on road in first year
By focusing more athletes through NN units, the results have been huge across the spectrum. Upon its first birthday, they had recorded 52 victories on the global road running stage including three World Marathon Major (WMM) successes.
To-date, NN Running Team has achieved more. Kamworor won the New York marathon in 2017 and 2019 as well as the 2018 Half-Marathon title.
Then, the more senior Kipchoge has won the London Marathon and Berlin Marathon twice each and also succeeded at the sub-two-hour marathon in Vienna, Austria, last year.
Kipchoge also holds the marathon world record (WR) at 2hrs, 1min and 39secs posted in Berlin two years ago. He will face-off with Bekele, who is two seconds shy of that time, at the London Marathon tomorrow.
For Uganda, Cheptegei has matured into a beast over the long-distance track double and, he has now set three WRs over the 10km, 5km and 5000m in a row.
He is gunning for the fourth straight WR during the NN Valencia World Record Day event at Turia Stadium in Valencia, Spain, on Wednesday.
Ruiter the catalyst
Before the 2016 Olympics, Jurrie told this paper that investment in an individual athlete would amount to at least $1,000 (Shs3.6m) but the figure is much bigger now.
The NN Running Team has revolutionised running in the country. “The team helped us for example in Uganda to invest more, to have Addy Ruiter as a full-time coach there, send physios over when necessary, assist with training camp expenses, pay for tickets for athletes to get opportunities in Europe et cetera,” explains Jurrie.
True, the key catalyst to Cheptegei’s results has been Dutchman Ruiter, a former skater and triathlete, currently based at the NN Running Team camp in Kapchorwa and has provided Cheptegei with extra speed session drills that have improved his final kick.
“I made a few changes in the training methods and we had a clear long-term vision from the start,” says Ruiter, who is a big pillar for the Kapchorwa camp.
“So it really helped us to boost the level in Uganda and create more opportunities for Ugandan athletes in Europe. Also, this year we organised a cross country race in Kapchorwa for schools which was funded by NN so we have more resources to do good for the community as well,” adds Jurrie, also a former cross-country runner.
Ruiter’s touch has been immense. He has also fine-tuned the middle-distance trio of Winnie Nanyondo, Nakaayi and Ronald Musagala and results have shown.
In 2018, Musagala scooped 1500, bronze at the Africa Senior Championships in Asaba, Nigeria and last year, he won two DL races in Paris and Birmingham but was unlucky to miss the final at the Doha Worlds.
More investment in offing
Nakaayi’s transition from 400m to 800m has now materialised and after bronze at the African Games in Morocco, she won the world 800m title, thanks to a stellar charge in the final stretch in Doha.
“Halimah (and co.) is not part of NN Running Team but she does have some benefits from the investments indeed,” notes Jurrie.
Jurrie says NN Running Team plans to do more in Uganda. “We were set to do more but the pandemic ruined these plans and we had to regroup on core business and support athletes in these hard times.
“We will continue to support distance runners worldwide with an aim to be a significant player in the world of distance running. In the end it’s all about the big city marathons and the championships.”
NN Running Team and GSC organise events sponsored by NN like the 7 Hills Run in Nijmegen and Rotterdam Marathon back home in Netherlands and the San Silvestre Madrid 10K in Spain. So they have a big interest in road running.
GSC is involved in organisation of other road races like the Mumbai Marathon in India, Hamburg Marathon in Germany, Amsterdam Marathon in the Netherlands and the Rabat Marathon in Morocco.
And there could be a chance for NN Running to invest in conducting more elite road events in Africa.
“It’s an option we are considering either as GSC or NN Running Team, but due to the pandemic these things are put on hold.”
If you are interested in Uganda’s athletics, there is still more to come.