I had finished writing this week’s column when news trickled in that Peruth Chemutai had won gold in the 3,000-metre steeplechase at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Well, that’s not entirely true. The column had started out as a tribute to Sifan Hassan before running smack into a concrete writer’s block when the news broke. But let’s start with Hassan. The middle- and long-distance runner was in the final lap of the 1,500-metre heat race when she bumped into another runner and fell.
As the rest of the field peeled away, it looked that Hassan’s hope of qualifying for the final in that competition was over, but far from it. She rose quickly to her feet and started after the pack that was disappearing down the track. Running in the outside lane and covering even more ground as a result, the Ethiopian-Dutch woman passed one, then another, and then another runner.
By the last bend she was just behind the leading pack. She then powered down the home straight and had just enough to pip the leaders and win the heat.
If you have kids, find the clip and watch it with them. That beautiful moment captured the magic of the Olympics. It also packed in lessons about not feeling sorry for ourselves when life throws us down the dirt track, never giving up when we tumble, and not allowing setbacks to dampen our enthusiasm or determination to achieve our goals.
It is just as well that this happened in Japan, a land steeped in many things, including some very clever traditions. One is a saying, mirrored in some African societies, that if you fall down seven times make sure you get up eight times. It is a story of never giving up the fight.
The second is Kintsugi, an ancient art in which the Japanese repair broken pottery using lacquer dusted with powdered gold or silver. The repaired piece of pottery then bears its cracks with pride, instead of trying to hide them, and is, by dint of the gold, even more precious than the original, unbroken article. Most of us are cracked. Life has a tendency of throwing us against the rocks and our instinct, often, is to crawl up and feel sorry for ourselves, hide our pain and suffering. In this our one chance of living, there is little to gain from despondence, a lot from perseverance.
Athletes know this. In March 2017 Joshua Cheptegei was cantering to an easy win at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Kampala when his body gave way. It was painful to watch him crawl across the finish line.
A few months later, he won silver, then gold, and became a world champion. He could add to his medal haul before the end of the week. It is into this rarefied athletic hall of fame that Peruth Chemutai now finds herself, having become the first Ugandan woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
Each of these triumphs follow trails walked upon earlier. Before Cheptegei there was Stephen Kiprotich and before Kip there was Davis Kamoga and John AkiBua. Before Chemutai there was Dorcus Inzikuru, and that is before we get into the boxers.
There are lessons for the individual, about the pursuit of glory through the obstacles of pain and setbacks of failure. And there are lessons for the collective; to know that sometimes the best we do is so that others can come after us and do even better. That human excellence is an unending loop, limited by physics but not imagination.
I hope, Dear Reader, that in these grim times of death and uncertainty, that these stories shine a golden ray of hope into your life. That if you find yourself navigating winter’s cityside, face strewn with crystal bits of snowflakes, that you do not give in to disillusionment.
May you catch a glimpse of summer’s heatwaves in your eyes and put your comeback on the road again. Things will happen again, and regardless of what perils lie ahead of you, think of Hassan’s hassle and Chemutai’s chance and know it’s easy in the end but you must trust the process.
For now let’s celebrate what’s already our best-ever Olympics and hope that Chep and Kip, who still have races to come, can make us even bigger in Japan.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.