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Africa’s sprinters navigate the pandemic ahead of the Tokyo Olympics

While Africa is often associated with distance running, athletes from the continent have also left an indelible mark on the sprints at major championships.

From ‘double double’ sprint silver for Frank Fredricks in 1992 and 1996 to 400m silver for Gabriel Tiacoh in Los Angeles in 1984, and from Falilat Ogunkoya’s 400m bronze to Mary Onyali’s 200m bronze in Atlanta in 1996, Africa has produced its fair share of Olympic sprint success.

Nigeria was Africa’s dominant sprint nation at the Olympics from 1984 to 2008, winning eight of the 11 Olympic relay medals the continent had earned up until that point, but other nations such as South Africa, Botswana and Cote d’Ivoire have emerged as forces over the past decade.

But their collective hopes of adding to Africa’s major championships medal haul in 2020 have, of course, been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wayde van Niekerk, Africa’s leading sprinter at the 2016 Olympics, had been eagerly anticipating a return to action this year following two years on the side lines.

“It was a bit difficult (coming to terms with the pandemic) because it was my time; it was my time to start competing again and racing,” he said on the Paris Diamond League Call Room in June. “Running the 10.1 and 20.3 (back in February) showed me that I’m in the same shape as these guys that are now running well in South Africa, and the guys that are Diamond League runners in South Africa. I think I’m 100 percent ready to go (when the season starts again).”

With South Africa the nation hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic in Africa, Van Niekerk’s compatriot Akani Simbine, the African 100m champion, says he hasn’t had access to a track for four months.

“I found a golf course to train on and I’m pretty fortunate I have a gym in my house so I can gym at home and use equipment at home, but beyond that I’m a sprinter, I need to be on a track; it’s something that I’m missing,” he said during the London Diamond League Call Room. “I’ve missed training on a track and racing as well, and I’m looking forward to a time when they can say ‘You guys can get back on the track and do what you need to do and just work on your craft’.”

Just north of South Africa in Botswana, Commonwealth champion Isaac Makwala has been one of the most prominent 400m runners in Africa for almost a decade. The former African record-holder, who struggled with a hamstring injury last year, had planned a grand return to the track in 2020 but Botswana enforced a two-month lockdown through April and May, so he had to resort to doing workouts at home. And now, even though the lockdown has been eased and he has access to the track and gym, Makwala believes the pandemic has taken a lot from him.

“I had great plans for 2020,” says the 43.72 sprinter. “This was meant to be a big year in athletics because of the Olympics. I was aiming high to see myself qualify for the Olympics and to make the podium, but things didn’t go according to plan. It’s a great disadvantage for me because I was planning to run my last 400m this year and then focus on the 200m only in 2021 to 2022. The postponement of the Olympics by one more year is going to take a lot of energy and time to prepare again for another year.”

The two-time African 400m champion is concerned about the fate of his fellow African competitors whom he believes are worst hit by the pandemic. The African Championships and other continental meetings for 2020 were postponed, with the Kip Keino Classic set to take place in Nairobi in September as the only competition in place for now.

“In terms of competitions, Africa is going to be hardest hit when you consider that other parts of the world are now resorting to technology races,” he said. “Competitions have commenced in the US and Europe and African athletes are going to be affected the most because the Diamond League is set to commence in August and the borders in Africa may likely remain closed by then. How will African athletes fly to Europe for competitions? It’s bad for Africa.”

Marie-Josée Ta Lou narrowly missed out on two medals at the 2016 Olympics, finishing fourth in both 100m and 200m, before claiming double silver at the 2017 World Championships. Ta Lou says her preparation towards the Olympics is still on course in spite of the delays caused by the pandemic.

“The situation (in Cote d’Ivoire) is better now,” she said. “During the lockdown, I tried to do some workouts at home with my boyfriend, like skipping and push-ups. It wasn’t easy but now we’ve started to train again. The postponements haven’t affected my preparations for the Olympics because I had an injury in my leg and was trying to fix it, so it is a good opportunity to be healthy.”

Gambia’s Gina Bass, the African Games 200m champion and one of Africa’s exciting emerging sprint talents, revealed that the facilities in her country are still shut due to the pandemic.

“I’ve found it so difficult to cope with my training due to the general lock down in my country and all the sports venues,” said Bass, who reached the World Championships final last year. “I wake up early each morning and do some distance running just to keep my fitness, but there’s nowhere to check my speed. It's just hard trying to cope with the situation but I’m always ready to hit the track with maximum force when I resume.”

Bass started 2020 on a high, winning all of the 60m races she contested during the indoor season, culminating in a national record of 7.11 in Liévin.

“I feel so unhappy about the postponement because I was involved in hard training preparing to perform better,” she said. “However, the postponement helps the athletes to keep themselves safe, which I think is a very good decision for all of us.”

While African athletes based on the continent are still trying to adapt to the new realities triggered by the pandemic, some of their counterparts who are based in the US are facing similar challenges.

Nigeria’s Raymond Ekevwo, who raced to the African Games 100m title last year, is based in Florida. Although he still doesn’t have access to a track, he revealed that the University of Florida is working on a plan that would help student athletes return to campus and be able to use both academic and training resources.

“As the African Games champion, I was looking forward to the African Championships and the Olympics was really big for me too,” said the 9.96 sprinter. “I was ready to finish the NCAA 2020 season and just move on, but as it is now, things are pretty screwed up. Regarding the Olympics, I’m not that hurt because with everything that’s going on in the world, I think that’s just the best thing to do.”

Emmanuel Matadi was the flagbearer for Liberia at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. He qualified for the Tokyo Olympics a year ago with a time of 10.01 in the 100m, and the Texas-based sprinter had huge dreams for 2020. Having depended solely on home workouts during the lockdown, Matadi says he’s still motivated to continue preparing for the Olympics especially as training facilities are now open.

“Coming into the 2020 season, my expectations were good because I’m with a new group,” said the African 200m bronze medallist. “I was expecting to have a full season with the indoors and African Champs and the Olympics of course, but unexpectedly we had to shut down. I was disappointed but at the same time I had to understand that it was for everybody’s safety.

“It’s a blessing in disguise because during this time now I’m getting stronger for next year because it gives more time for preparation. Just knowing that other people are training gives me a leverage to stay fit and to stay sharp as opposed to sitting down and not doing open.”

Ghanaian 200m record-holder Joseph Paul Amoah lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and even though the lockdown wasn’t as severe in his city, his university, Coppin State, shut down their facilities.

“Coming into 2020, my No.1 goal was to stay injury free because this was meant to be a big year for athletes,” said Amoah, who has tried to keep fit by lifting some weights at home and doing a little training on a high school track. “I wanted to have a good indoor season just so that I could carry the momentum into the outdoors, so I took the indoors very seriously. I saw some good results and it motivated me to believe that the outdoors would be very good, but it was not to be.

“I shut my season down right after the indoors. I just want to eat well and still be disciplined, try to get the body right for what is ahead. I was disappointed but that’s not where it all ends; there is still more ahead.”

Even though his training facility is still shut, there have been talks about reopening, albeit with a catch. “Recently I heard we have to have a Covid-19 test before we are allowed to resume training at the facility, so maybe next week I will do that.”

Although disappointed by the turn of events, Amoah still has cause for celebration as he graduated from Coppin State University last month with a degree in accounting. “It’s a wonderful achievement”, he said. “I recently received my degree via mail because we couldn’t have a graduation. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful feeling to know I’ve been able to achieve something like this.”

While there’s still lots of uncertainty ahead, Amoah has shown his fellow athletes that it’s possible to find glimmers of hope in these tough times. (World Athletics)