The Olympic Games are finally upon us; or be it belatedly! Team Uganda will hope to come roaring back after facing a medal-less postmortem five years ago. That Joshua Cheptegei’s sixth-place finish in the 10,000 metres final was Uganda’s standout performance at the 2016 Games says it all. Rio de Janeiro posed such a rocky road for Uganda’s 21 athletes.
There is a lingering stench that needs to be banished.
But, make no mistake, there will be formidable obstacles at Tokyo 2020 for the 25 Team Uganda athletes that were listed to line up behind their national flag during Friday’s opening ceremony. A number of them missed the ceremony for varying reasons.
The distance runners, for one, are still hard at it in the undulating contours of Sebei sub-region. Two of them set to double up over 5000m and 10000m – Cheptegei and wunderkind Jacob Kiplimo – have been presented as cast-iron certainties to podium in Tokyo.
So barring a disaster of epic proportions, there should be a marked improvement in Team Uganda’s performance from five years ago. And this is not just over the distance. A requirement of female intersex athletes to suppress hormone levels to compete in track events from the quarter mile to the mile has left the door ajar for Halimah Nakaayi and Winnie Nanyondo.
Nakaayi, who goes to Tokyo with the distinction of being a world champion, has just fully recuperated from a shin injury she picked up after shifting her training sessions from the tartan track at Namboole to Mabira’s bitumen.
It is true that the pandemic made training for athletes the world over such a lonely pursuit. What with putting athletics facilities under lock and key! In Uganda, the only facility with a standard running tartan track was repurposed as a Covid-19 centre.
There is no shame in that. But after the horror show at Rio 2016, prescriptions pointed in varying directions. The common thread that ran through all the prescriptions was a scaling up training facilities, chief among which was the high altitude training centre in Teryet. Its stalled progress has at once dramatised and deepened Uganda’s flagging Olympic dreams. Evidently, we will never hear the end of it!
Team Uganda qualified two boxers to the 2016 Games. None of them – flyweight Ronald Serugo and light heavyweight Kennedy Katende – made it past the first hurdle. One reason proffered for the abject showing was that Team Uganda had just one official who was expected to multitask ringside. The reluctance to heed warnings again shows itself in the fact that Patrick Lihanda – who only recently beat Covid – will be expected to have as many tentacles as an octopus ringside in Tokyo.
How this reflects on the performances of Shadir Bwogi (welterweight), David Ssemujju (middleweight), and Catherine Nanziri (flyweight) is anyone’s guess. Just don’t bet your bottom dollar!
That notwithstanding, there are so many feel-good stories for Uganda. This column has persistently pushed for a diversification away from track events. It will therefore be refreshing to watch Kathleen Noble push her luck in the women’s single sculls.
At 17, Prisca Chemweno Chesang will lace her spikes and take part in only her second race outside Uganda during the women’s 5000m. A year younger than Chesang, Kirabo Namutebi will also make her Olympic bow in the women’s 50m freestyle.
Elsewhere, a number of key matchups have whetted the appetite of your columnist. The women’s 100m final will doubtless be the marquee sprint event. But outside it there is that potential battle between Delilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin in the women’s 400m hurdles final.
In the pool, there is the inevitable mouthwatering clash between Katie Ledecky and Ariarne Titmus in the women’s 400m freestyle. American gymnasts Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee should also produce a firework display in the uneven bars.
In the women’s basketball event, many will be keen to see if Sue Bird’s floor vision lands her a fifth Olympic gold medal. May the Pandemic Games begin, and good luck Team Uganda!
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