Olympics 2020: Uganda all out for medals

Thursday July 22 2021
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President Museveni and First Lady Janet flag off the Uganda Olympics Team to Japan at Kololo Independence Grounds on July 9. PHOTO/PPU

By Allan Darren Kyeyune

After a long painful wait, the Tokyo Olympics are here. Over the next three weeks, the globe will be watching the games which form the pinnacle of world sport.

The world’s best athletes, about 11,500 of them, including 25 Ugandans, have descended on Japan to compete in 339 different events across 33 sports for gold, silver and bronze medals of the XXXII Olympiad.

Uganda’s contingent is the biggest at the Olympics since they sent 26 athletes for the Los Angeles 1984 Games in USA.

The games normally come every four years but the East Asian nation is welcoming the rest of the world a year late because of coronavirus disruptions. 

Double Japan blow
At some point, Japan has felt too much heat to perhaps, call off these games. But the government, the Tokyo Olympics Organising Committee, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), have withstood this storm.

Hence these will be the first-ever Olympic Games to be postponed and rescheduled, rather than cancelled. 
To expound further, Japan must be deeply hurting emotionally. The island country has been unlucky twice whenever IOC has offered them a chance to host the Olympics.

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A pedestrian walks past a Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games decoration board on the wall of the National Stadium, main venue for the games, in Tokyo on June 3, 2021. PHOTO | BEHROUZ MEHRI | AFP

Japan was scheduled to stage the 1940 Olympics, from September 21 to October 6 in Tokyo. But, they were changed to Finnish capital Helsinki for dates of July 20 to August 4, 1940 following Japan’s invasion of China in 1937.

Due to Covid-19, Japan has devised temporary measures. The capital is currently under a state of emergency during the time for the games and no international tourists are welcome, unlike the old good editions of the Olympics.

United by emotion
And in the face of the pandemic, the Japanese are committed to pull this off even if they have spent in excess of $15.4 billion to set the stage for 206 nations.

Organisers have maintained the name Tokyo 2020 for marketing and branding purposes and across the world, it is already trending across digital media platforms.

The games will officially start with the customary opening ceremony at the National Stadium tomorrow night in Tokyo (2pm in Uganda). 

There will be vivid display of the Tokyo 2020 motto: ‘United by emotion’. It was chosen to paint a symbol of togetherness and ray of hope for the world which comprises different ages, nationalities and backgrounds but it is physically separated due to Covid-19.

“Tokyo 2020 wants everyone to experience the same excitement, joy, and at times disappointment, through the athletes’ competitive performances,” reads part of the games’ motto detail.

Dominant Covid-19
And painful as it might be, Covid-19 has pruned the games further to a rather odd shape. 
The opening ceremony normally welcomes contingents for nations of any size but this time, a maximum of nine people will be around to march for each country in an empty stadium.

Athletes and the 79,000 overseas officials, journalists and support staff are all set to be subjected to regular testing and in case one turns out positive, they face a mandatory 14 days of self-isolation, thereby threatening their participation in games.

Uganda’s sad start
Uganda has already had a fair share of that pain after boxing coach Patrick Lihanda displayed mild symptoms when the country’s first nine-man batch arrived at Tokyo’s Narita Airport on June 19.

Lihanda, who punched in middleweight class at the Los Angeles 1984, and at Seoul 1998 Games, first isolated in Tokyo, while eight others proceeded to Izumisano for a pre-games camp before a second case was reported. 

These, including weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko, swimmer Atuhaire Ambala, boxing trio of Shadiri Bwogi, Catherine Nanziri and David Ssemujju, were also quarantined until July 3 and got access to facilities four days later.

Runaway Ssekitoleko
Ssekitoleko, unfortunately, missed out on a slot in the 67kg category via the quota system and he was expected to come back home by Tuesday. 

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Julius Ssekitoleko, 20

Instead, the 20-year-old vanished from his hotel room, leaving a note behind indicating that he had chosen to stay in Japan to look for work.

He was, however, detected by the web of cameras getting on a train and later found by police in the city of Yokkaichi, 105 miles east of Izumisano. 

Troubled Ssekitoleko is expected to return home on Sunday, but he has made headlines globally even if he won’t clean, jerk and snatch in Tokyo.

Ssekitoleko has been discussed much more than Uganda’s biggest medal prospects such as runners Joshua Cheptegei, Jacob Kiplimo or Halimah Nakaayi.

Cheptegei and the rest must now wash away the country’s negative publicity by performing to the nation’s weight of expectation. 

And by the way, there is some good optimism for a Ugandan to be at the podium at the Tokyo 2020 Games, particularly from athletics. 

That perhaps plays into sports minister Hamson Obua’s rhyme, who recently said his ministry was “expecting three gold medals because I also want to go on record as a golden minister.”

But, truth be told, Uganda was in a better position to win medals had the Olympics come last year. Why? 
Global long-distance running ace Cheptegei was in his best shape, months after clinching the 10,000m gold at the Doha World Championships in Qatar on September 6, 2019.

Eyes on Cheptegei
Then, Halimah Nakaayi too had scooped the world 800m title in Doha, adding to her bronze over the two-lap race at the African Games in Morocco.

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Halimah Nakaayi poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the women’s 800m at the 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on October 1, 2019. PHOTO/AFP

In 2019 still, Ronald Musagala may have missed the 1500m final in Doha but he had twice posted the third fastest time of the year over the distance.

But the Covid-19 lull has honestly seen Nakaayi and Musagala lose some of that rhythm. The same applies to Winnie Nanyondo, who came fourth in the 800m final in Doha.

Only Cheptegei maintained his steam by breaking his idol Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele’s 5000m and 10,000m world records to add to those of the 5km and 10km last year.

The 24-year-old is now the favourite for the men’s 10,000m final when a field of 28 lines-up at the National Stadium on Day 1 of track and field events on July 30.

This 25-lap race will be the first athletics medal event and Uganda’s biggest chance for its first Olympic delight in nine years.

Here is Cheptegei’s moment, one he has had to patiently wait for, on a rather successful yet bumpy career path, since winning the 10,000m gold at the World Junior Championships in Oregon, USA. 

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Favourite. Cheptegei is the favourite for Olympic 10000m gold but faces stiff challenge from compatriot Kiplimo and Kenyan Kamworor. PHOTO/AFP

Don’t overlook Kiplimo
An Olympic medal is the only missing piece of silverware in Cheptegei’s cabinet and if he gets the gold, he will seal the legacy as Uganda’s GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).

Cheptegei, who also boasts of the Commonwealth 5,000m and 10,000m gold medals, will also double over the 5,000m, if he chooses to.

But he will face stiff resistance from familiar Kenyan and Ethiopian foes, as well as his counterpart Kiplimo.

The 20-year-old Kiplimo is also gunning for the 10,000m gold and according to World Athletics, he is ranked as the number one this year over the distance, having won the Ostrava Golden Spike Meeting in Czech Republic with the seventh fastest time ever of 26:33.93 on May 19.

Kiplimo’s form is stellar. A world half-marathon champion in Gdynia, Poland nine months ago, he heads to Tokyo with five wins in his last six races since the start of last year.

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Double Sealed. Kiplimo will run the double in Tokyo. PHOTO | ISMAIL KEZAALA

Sources close to Cheptegei and Kiplimo indicate the two have planned to do a 1-2. And they have done it before, when Cheptegei powered to senior men’s 10km gold at the 2019 World Cross-country in Aarhus, Denmark.

Legend Kiprotich back
While Musagala can cause an upset too, the men’s marathon is another event for Uganda to look out for when Stephen Kiprotich, Fred Musobo and Filex Chemonges line-up in Sapporo on August 8 - the last day of the Games.

The 42km race has given Uganda five medals in the last seven championships highlighted by Kiprotich’s gold at the 2012 London Olympics, and 2013 Moscow World Championships.
 Kiprotich may be 32 now but he is a master at championship races, which are usually slow and he knows the tough terrain of Sapporo well. 

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Greatness: Kiprotich finds himself in legend Akii-Bua’s fate. PHOTO/FILE/ AGENCIES

While Kenyan great Eliud Kipchoge will attract most attention, national record holder Chemonges, Musobo and Kiprotich are the only Ugandans to ever run a marathon under two hours and seven minutes.

Nakaayi is peaking
After Ssekitoleko missed a slot, it meant Uganda will have more female (13) than male (12) competitors at the Olympics for the first time ever.

Nakaayi, who has steadily improved since heading to Europe early last month, appears to be peaking at the right time ahead of the 800m race whose Heats come on July 30. 

She broke her own national record by a solitary micro second to 1:58.03 in her last race at the Monaco Diamond League in France on July 9.

And at a more tactical championship such as the Olympics, Nakaayi’s coach Addy Ruiter, believes the 26-year-old can deliver to the expectation.

Firsts in rowing, boxing
More to note, Uganda will present 400m runner Shida Leni as the first sprinter at the Games since Justine Bayigga competed at the Beijing 2008 Games.

Away from the 19 runners, there are two swimmers Ambala and Kirabo Namutebi, while Kathleen Noble will tonight (3am) become the country’s first-ever competitor in a rowing event at the Olympics.

Born to parents who came for missionary work almost 30 years ago, Noble will compete in the single sculls Heats at the Sea Forest Waterway, making her also Uganda’s first athlete in action at the Tokyo Games.

In boxing, Catherine Nanziri will also be Uganda’s first female in the ring at the games when she lines-up for the flyweight last 32 bout on Sunday.

Her counterparts welterweight Bwogi and Ssemujju, who won middleweight silver at the 2019 African Games, cannot be overlooked. 

The boxing trio is in pursuit of Uganda’s first Olympic medal from the ring since John ‘The Beast’ Mugabi’s welterweight silver at the Moscow 1980 Games.

New disciplines, sports
The Tokyo 2020 Games will also see new disciplines in different sports such as 3-on-3 in basketball, BMX freestyle in cycling and the reintroduction of madison in track cycling. 

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Policemen walk past one of the entrances to the Olympic Village in Tokyo on July 13, 2021, ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which begin on July 23. PHOTO/AFP

Athletics will have a new 4X400m mixed relay event and archery will also have a mixed team competition while swimming and shooting all have three new disciplines.

There are also new sports; baseball, karate, softball, surfing and skateboarding.
All in all, these Olympics offer the world a chance to unlock itself from the pandemic.

Team Uganda 

Athletics
Women: Shida Leni (400m), Halima Nakaayi (800m), Winnie Nanyondo (800m & 1500m), Peruth Chemutai (3000m steeplechase), Esther Chebet, Prisca Chesang & Sarah Chelangat (all 5000m), Mercyline Chelangat (10000m), Juliet Chekwel & Immaculate Chemutai (Marathon)

Men: Ronald Musagala (1500m), Albert Chemutai (3000m Steeplechase), Oscar Chelimo (5000m), Jacob Kiplimo, Stephen Kissa, Joshua Cheptegei (10000m), Fred Musobo, Stephen Kiprotich, Filex Chemonges (all Marathon)

Boxing
Women: Catherine Nanziri (Flyweight)
Men: Musa Shadir (Welterweight), David Semujju (Middleweight)

Swimming
Men: Atuhaire Ambale (100m freestyle)
Women: Kirabo Namutebi (50m freestyle)

Rowing
Women: Kathleen Noble (Single Scull)

Uganda’s medals at Olympics

Event  and  Medallist
1968 Mexico City:      Eridadi Mukwanga (Bantamweight Silver)
1968 Mexico City:                Leo Rwabwogo (Flyweight Bronze)
1972 Munich:                        John Akii-Bua (400m Hurdles Gold)
1972 Munich:                              Leo Rwabwogo (Flyweight Silver)
1980 Moscow:                        John Mugabi (Welterweight Silver)
1996 Atlanta:                                   Davis Kamoga (400m Bronze)
2012 London:                       Stephen Kiprotich (Marathon Gold)

Uganda at the Olympics

Games: 15 games in 13 countries
Events: 59 distinct events in 9 sports
Participants: 178 
(150 men and 27 women)
Youngest Participant: Charles Lubulwa
(15 years, 206 days), Moscow 1980
Oldest Participant: Elly Kitamireke (41
years, 16 days), Munich 1972
Most medals (Athlete): 
Leo Rwabwogo (2 medals)
*Note: Excludes Tokyo 2020 stats
 

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