Legends Marathon: Athletes yearn for engagement platforms, recognition

John Akii-Bua won Uganda's first Olympic Gold medal. PHOTO/COURTSEY 

What you need to know:

Onyango parted by saying “athletes need to be exemplary” and one that continues to be 27 years after his departure from this earth is Uganda’s first Olympic gold medalist John Akii-Bua, whose legacy was highlighted on the show.

Did you know that Ugandan football icon Denis Onyango and athletics legend Moses Kipsiro have never met?

This is no introduction to a trivia article and we hear you asking how relevant is a meeting between the two men for both of their careers or lives?

It is probably not. Except that both men, full of admiration for each other’s success, admitted on NTV’s premier sports show SportKnights, this past Monday, that when the body gives way, or perhaps when the adrenaline dies down and there are no more opponents to beat on the field of play or track, one needs like-minded people or even better inspiration to continue being a success in life.

Kipsiro, for example, developed a knee injury in 2009. His resilience allowed him to push it another five years so much that he won the 5,000m and 10,000m gold double at the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games. Such was his success that the President Yoweri Museveni allowed his request for a high performance centre in Teryet, Kapchorwa. But we shall get to this much later.

In 2014, Kipsiro defended the 10,000m gold in Glasgow but the knee had worsened.

“I would treat it but it was not healing and I was not ready to stop,” Kipsiro shared on the prime time sports show, which he joined through a Zoom link from his home in Bukwo.

“But when I wanted to leave track for marathon, I realized I could not push it any more. Marathon training is cruel because every Thursday or Saturday, you need to hit the road for 30 or 40km. I was caught off guard but I quickly realized that I needed to start shifting my mind.

"I did not want people to say, Kipsiro was a star and now he is a beggar. I have many of the Kenyan athletes we were winning money with are now struggling.

"Fortunately, I had someone to talk to, one of the Bishops in my area. He was always guiding me and in 2013, he had told me to build a hotel and start some farming; planting and buying trees,” Kipsiro, who had to abruptly retire at barely 27, said before he heaped praise on another living legend in Joshua Cheptegei for being “smart and doing well for himself while still running.”

Kipsiro has added “a beautiful cave” that he is “working to turn into a tourist attraction in Bukwo. It will work with the hotel” but also mentors over 70 athletes through his Kipsiro Moses Foundation and he is so engrossed that during the Rwenzori Marathon in Kasese last September, he was ‘whipping up’ his athletes through the entire course on a motorcycle.

Uganda Cranes legend Denis Onyango 

The Legends Marathon

The former Cranes captain and most decorated footballer in South African and Ugandan football also runs the Denis Onyango Masinde (Dom) Foundation, which is a vehicle to change lives in his Busia home town.

If it were not for a Caf Champions League semifinal with ES Tunis on April 19 in Tunisia, Onyango would meet Kipsiro and many other icons of Ugandan sport at the April 20 Legends Marathon at Nakasero Primary School Ground, Kampala.

“It is a good thing to have an opportunity to meet the likes of Kipsiro, run with them and learn from them; it must feel good. I just watched them on TV and I would love to interact with them and share ideas on how we can transform our lives as athletes.

“It is not easy for us because people do not give many chances to athletes when we retire. Society must accept us because it is not easy to retire and run life the same way you were when still active,” Onyango, who also joined the show on a Zoom link from Cape Town, South Africa and was described by Kipsiro as “my number one goalkeeper ever”, said.

The Legends Marathon – which was the main topic of the Monday night sports show – was conceived last November by Daily Monitor sports journalist, Andrew Mwanguhya, who after 15 years of trying, first hand, to highlight the onfield and off-field successes and struggles in Ugandan sport decided something sustainable had to be done to help athletes transition into life after sports.

“Ugandans and athletes have understood the marathon and are willing to help without asking for anything. This is not a project to create entitled athletes but to empower them so that they can continue living better even after the career is done,” Mwanguhya said.

Proline director Mujib Kasule. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE 

The marathon will be run by Impact Sport (IS), a non-profit organization, whose vision is to transform lives through sport. The marathon has received endorsement from various athletes plus the Kampala running community which includes Team Matooke (Uganda’s Official Running Club at international running events), The Kampala Hash Harriers (KH3), Gutsy Bunch, Fast & Furious, and Activate Uganda.

Handling transition 

But most importantly, it will have programmes on the sidelines that seek to tackle issues like; athlete well-being, inclusivity, sustainability, accountability, sportsmanship, charity and social responsibility, excellence, legacy and tradition.

“Transitoning is a huge topic because at the end of the day, your body will tell you, I am done.

"Unfortunately, most clubs do not help much with this so when you have initiatives like this marathon that help athletes, it is a good thing. I love the idea from Andrew because people normally forget athletes when they retire,” Onyango said.

Onyango and Kipsiro were picking on the baton from a discussion that had been started by one of Uganda’s most successful former athletes – turned football administrator – in Mujib Kasule and the former Victoria Pearls captain Naomi Kayondo.

“I was fortunate. Transition was quite easy because I planned it, I had people around me that guided me, especially when I got an opportunity to go and play sports in the US. These countries understand the life cycle of an athlete and that you spend the longest time of your life in retirement.

"Athletes have three phases in their careers; when they are starting; when they are in it and after it. All these must be given the same attention so you must ask yourself; what do you do while you are playing to prepare for the future? When playing, you are contributing to the game but what happens after?

Uganda Gazelles legends Flavia Oketcho. PHOTO/JOHN BATANUDDE 

While playing, I started to do my coaching badges; my dream was to coach and own a football club. Once you have an education, you can plan, organize and strategize.

"After my education, I returned here to play for KCCA and Uganda Cranes but I did not like how the game was organized. But because of what I studied, I was able to retire at 27 and start Proline the next day and work as an agent moving players from Uganda to other countries as a way to contribute to a change,” Kasule said.

Kasule, a celebrated coaches’ instructor, received many plaudits on the show, including from Onyango, for trying to help the Ugandan footballer find opportunities abroad. Those who attend the marathon are likely to tap from the knowledge of a man who has seen and done it all.

“Mujib wanted to take me to the US and do my studies but I really wanted to play with (then SC Villa coach Milutin Sredejovic) Micho. But there were others he helped like Kabeta, Nsereko Steven, Samadu Mutumba and many of these turned out well. You can use sport as an opportunity to go out there to educate yourself.

"He got many youngsters from Naguru and he changed their lives. He helped them move away from bad things,” Onyango said.

Mwanguhya said “Saddam Juma, is now working with Juventus in China but he says he only knew Mujib as an administrator until he did a coaching course under him. That is when Saddam got to know the things that Mujib knows about life and now appreciates him even more.”

Another panelist and general secretary of the Uganda Sports Press Association (Uspa) Clive Kyazze said that “I am a fan of a sports show run by former footballers, Uganda Fan TV. And on it they share the things that Mujib told them to do back then to prepare for life after their playing careers. The things did not make sense to them then but they now see the light.

"The biggest problem now is that there is not enough care for athletes from the schools or the people there to mentor them despite the many offers for bursaries. Most schools are only interested in you playing football for them and not your life after,” Kyazze highlighted an even bigger malaise.

Kasule put it succinctly that “everybody needs support and enlightenment. The absence of that continues to create the (struggling) legends that we have today.”

Stephen Kiprotich won Uganda's second Olympic Gold medal. PHOTO/COURTSEY 

Need for recognition

He cut even deeper: “Many people think the biggest problem former athletes have is not having money after retirement but it is loneliness; not having what to do and not being recognized.

"After 10 years of singing my name in the stands, getting things on a silver platter, reality hits you. The life of a sportsman, say Onyango is such that he has not had to do anything for themselves in the last 15 years; you do not know how to get a passport, book a hotel, they wake you up for meals and training. All you do is play and prepare for matches because the managers do not want players to be disturbed or stressed.

"When all this stops all of a sudden, you start asking yourself what to do. That is when problems start,” Kasule shared.

The running theme, for all these success stories, is that they have had shoulders to lean on but most importantly, most of them still seek to have something to offer the sports they are passionate about.

Kayondo said that she is “in the transitioning phase; my playing days are getting behind me. I am still in the stage that desires to get an opportunity to retire.

"I have already started to make moves in life on the other side. I am running an academy to keep in the sport. I have done; sports management and administration courses offered (for free) by the Uganda Olympic Committee, mentorship programmes with ICC (International Cricket Council), especially in the line of coaching.

Boxer Kassim Ouma. PHOTO/COURTSEY 

"Working with the academy helps me pass on the skills that I have to others. In other countries we look up to like India, England, Australia, that is what people do. We have had Little Stumps Academy for four years and we want to turn it into an elite academy creating a holistic player.

"In sports you learn life, relationships, teamwork, leadership, hygiene among others,” Kayondo said.

Coming to the national team at a young age, she was “held by the hand” by Diana Musiime while her dad “has always asked us to balance sports and academics” since she and her siblings started getting involved in cricket years ago at King’s College Budo.

“The headteacher back then, George Ssemivule always ensured I had a pass to play cricket but also ensured I mastered my academics. I am now a registered valuation surveyor in Uganda but I believe there is an opportunity or space for everyone to give back to their sport and remain relevant”.

The multiplier effect

Kasule added at that point that “having more is not a privilege but a responsibility. If you achieve more, you have to use your experience to create a multiplier effect.”

“I am sure those watching are motivated. It is unbelievable what Kipsiro has done in 10 years.

"Many of us; 90 percent are struggling but the 10 percent, if given a platform to get ideas across and sensitize others, can create a multiplier effect because everything starts with a meeting of ideas like this platform (marathon) offers.

"This is what legends need. You are supposed to switch off this light and switch on this one, not to be in total darkness.

"In Nigeria, Cameroon, and most West African countries, every player that retires starts a foundation. These go on and develop other athletes but the governments are also supporting them with things like land. If you took a player and told  them about Onyango, they would believe Onyango more than the best motivational speaker,” Kasule explained.

Ex SC Villa and Uganda Cranes defender Paul Hasule (RIP). PHOTO/FILE 

Akii-Bua paved the way

Onyango parted by saying “athletes need to be exemplary” and one that continues to be 27 years after his departure from this earth is Uganda’s first Olympic gold medalist John Akii-Bua, whose legacy was highlighted on the show.

Mwanguhya said, “Others might have won more than him but his story has unquantifiable weight because everything after him was a reference to him” while Kasule added that “while you cannot have one GOAT (greatest of all time), the people who break barriers should always be celebrated and never forgotten” before Kyazze took us down memory lane.

“By the way for those who have watched his movie (The John Akii Bua Story: An African Tragedy), Akii-Bua’s race that helped him qualify for those (Munich 1972) Olympics was held in Wankulukuku and the times needed to be verified severally for him to make it. But you wonder what lessons we have learned if Wankulukuku still looks as shambolic today as it was back then.”

Interestingly, Kipsiro shared that for “the 2001-2004 period” that he was “a student at Standard High School Zana,” he “used to train at Wankulukuku and it was still in a bad state.”

“Government should develop our facilities. For Teryet, it has been 14 years but they keep saying they are working on Phase I, Phase II. Other countries would have finished it in three years.

"For Akii-Bua, winning a medal with a world record (then 47.82 seconds for the 400m hurdles) was not easy. Our government had a lot of challenges then so I really salute him and say he really paved the way for athletics in Uganda,” Kipsiro said.

For the Legends Marathon, the dream is to re-pave the way of success for each and every Ugandan athlete.

The Legends Marathon
Date: April 20
Venue: Nakasero Primary School Ground
Distances: 5km, 21km, 42km
Tickets, Shs50,000 (ordinary), Shs150,000 (C.E.O), Shs200,000/$50 (International)
*To register, go to thelegendsmarathon.com or press *291#, click PAY Merchant and enter merchant code 265072.