Saturday, 25 March 2017

If you trample on my dreams, don’t be surprised when I stop dreaming

My earliest memory of the World Cross Country Championships was on March 21st 1992. I was sitting in the back of the Lada, along with my three brothers, on our way to visit Granny, as was normal for a Sunday afternoon. My mum, eager not to miss any significant sporting result, had the radio on, and news was coming through that Catriona McKiernan had won a silver medal in Boston. Her Irish teammate, Sonia O’Sullivan, had finished seventh.

I hadn’t even ran my first cross country race at that time – I still believed then that the lunchtime kickabouts with the boys in our small country primary school was going to catapult me to Wexford GAA stardom – but for some reason that news stuck with me. My memory may be romantically selective, but I can’t remember too many other sporting result from those days. Ok, so Italia ’90 was pretty big, the Wexford hurlers always seemed to lose, and Barry McGuigan won some significant boxing match very late one night. But apart from that, nothing.

I couldn’t have comprehended then what Catriona or Sonia had just achieved, nor could I have imagined the success that lay ahead for them both. Still, something told me that we were punching well above our weight on the world cross country running scene.

Women participating and achieving in sport had already been normalised for me about two decades before I became aware that there are barriers preventing females from competing in competitive sport. And, more importantly, when I started running 10 months later, I had something to aspire to.


Who’s apathy?

The World Cross Country Championships will take place tomorrow in Kampala, Uganda, and there won’t be a single Irish representative at the event. Despite our women’s team finishing fifth four years ago in Poland and winning European team bronze medals twice since, the 2017 edition of the world’s greatest distance race never seemed to register on the Athletics Ireland radar.

The apathy of the athletes will of course be blamed, but the problem is bigger than that. The lack of commitment to send athletes to this event was so great that the Athletics Ireland selection policy document – which appeared on the High Performance section of the governing body’s website as an afterthought some time in December – contains the incorrect distances for the senior race.

With other competitive opportunities available to athletes, selection criteria along the lines of ‘we’ll send you if we think you’re good enough’ does nothing to secure their commitment. And with the bar for good enough being so high (top 20) that only two-time European Champion Fionnuala McCormack has surpassed it since 2005, is it any wonder that athletes fail to set their sights on the event? 2013 was the only time since 2008 that a scoring team, in any category, was sent. Indeed Ireland have only sent a full senior women’s team three times since they last medalled in 2002; that’s less than a handful of times in the memories of the very athletes we’d be expecting to make this their dream!


Brexit


While the World Cross Country Championships has long been a precarious dream for the Irish distance runner, the rapid, downward spiral of British interest can be pinpointed to a single monumental selection error in 2010. Despite a similarly vague selection policy to the one seemingly adopted by the Irish and an uncertainty over what exactly needed to be achieved, athletes went into the trial event that year full of hope. The top three in the senior men’s race – Mo Farah and Andy Vernon, along with Mumin Gala, who was not eligible for selection – were well ahead of the field. Mike Skinner followed. Next came a large group of talent, young and old, in an exciting and ever-changing battle for the remaining places in the top six. Phil Hinch, James Walsh, and a 19 year old James Wilkinson eventually out smarted and out ran their rivals, putting themselves in prime position for selection.

Three days later Hinch and Walsh learned that they were not included in the team. They didn’t receive so much as a phonecall to inform them that only Farah, Vernon, Skinner and Wilkinson would be sent to Poland. In summary, they were too old and had not yet achieved enough in the sport to be part of the team.

There went Hinchie’s lifetime dream, and along with it the dreams and aspirations of those who looked on in admiration as the hard work finally looked to be paying dividends for the 31 year old.

Britain will have no representatives in the senior men’s race tomorrow.


It’s not the taking part, it’s the winning that counts


Many ‘experts’ within British and Irish athletics believe that it’s impossible for Europeans to be competitive at this event any longer; that if you’re not going to be at the head of the field then there’s no point in competing, and, most worryingly, that if black people are dominating a world championship, then something needs to be done at a global level to ‘fix’ it.  

If a young Irish athlete happens to be watching the World Championships tomorrow, like I once did, and fails to be inspired or motivated by it, it won’t be because the kids at the front are black, or because the Irish athletes are not high enough to be competitive. It’ll be because the complete lack of Irish representatives suggest that they may never get the opportunity to take on those young men and women from East Africa; because they’ll have been constantly told that this isn’t an event that they should aspire to; and because they’ll be disillusioned to death with the uninspiring, poorly informed commentary which feeds the vicious circle that has become European interest (or disinterest) in World Cross Country, at every available opportunity.

I never achieved my dream of racing at the World Cross Country Championships, but at least I had, for a while, the opportunity to try. Let's ensure that future generations do too.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Uganda is not on Mars

If recent history has taught us anything, it has taught us that many Britons have an egocentric and egotistical view of the world; a view that London is the centre of the universe and that they get to choose how globalism works. Nowhere is that egocentrism more evident than in those lamenting the demise of the World Cross Country Championships and blaming that demise almost purely on the selection of ‘obscure’ venues, outside the UK, for recent editions of the world’s most competitive distance race.

In just 10 days time the global cross country championships will be held in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, a destination BBC pundit Paula Radcliffe would have you believe – if her commentary at the recent European Cross Country Championships is anything to go by – is on Mars. Kampala is, in fact, located a short drive from Entebbe Airport, a substantial international airport that can be reached overnight from the UK. As it turns out Kampala is easier to get to than Iten, Kenya, where many British athletes have been training this winter. And last winter. And the winter before. And the winter before that...

Among the other locations British Eurosport commentator Tim Hutchings – these populous opinions are not confined to those who work for the national broadcaster – recently cited as ‘obscure’ in an article on the topic in Athletics Weekly were Kenya, Poland, China and Jordan.

That’s not obscure, that’s global! And these are, after all, the world championships.

Indeed, with the next edition of the World T&F Championships (London 2017), World Indoor Championships (Birmingham 2018) and European Indoor Championships (Glasgow 2019) all scheduled for Britain, it's nice to see a little bit of diversity.


The arguments don’t stack up


Not only does the lamenting of Radcliffe, Hutchings and others show their very limited world view, their argument that placing the cross country championships outside of Europe has a detrimental effect on participation are not backed up by the facts.

Numbers have obviously declined since the short course championships were scrapped in 2006, and will never return to the numbers seen before the introduction of the shorter races when men’s teams could run nine athletes (with six to score), compared to six (with four to score) these days.

Half the last 10 editions of the championships have been held in Europe, with Asia hosting three championships, and Africa two. If we take the 2007, 2008 and 2009 events – the last time three consecutive championships were held on different continents – as a sample, we’ll notice that the European event, held in Edinburgh, actually had lower participant numbers than Mombassa the previous year and Amman the following year. Yes, the differences are marginal, but the common opinion would have you thinking that all roads lead to Britain only.

2007 Mombassa (Kenya) 63 countries 470 participants
2008 Edinburgh (UK) 57 countries 446 participants
2009 Amman (Jordan) 59 countries 461 participants

And the argument that athletes are not willing to travel as it causes too much disruption to their training doesn't really make sense either. Some athletes were more than willing to recently travel to Australia for a series of events which have zero performance outcomes for them. Nobody turned down their Olympic place because of the travel involved. There will be no shortage of athletes willing to travel to the Bahamas later this year for the World Relay Challenge. And athletes regularly travel to the US for high profile road races, often competing at home and stateside in the same week.

Travel does not appear to be a problem.


Not without their distance-running tradition


If we believe that the Kenyans and Ethiopians are genetically gifted, geographically advantaged, socially motivated and culturally predisposed to distance running success, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Ugandans, who share many of those geographical, social and cultural attributes with their Rift Valley neighbours, have also experienced distance running success on the world stage.

And we’re not talking about success built on athletes being bought from Kenya or Ethiopia here – no, Uganda has some real home-grown talent.

But it wasn’t at the distance events that Uganda first achieved success. John Akii Bua, the 1972 Olympic 400m hurdles champion, is probably the country’s most famous champion. The Malcolm Arnold-coached athlete won the Munich final in a new world record from lane one to become Africa’s first Olympic gold medallist at a distance shorter than 800m, and Uganda’s first global medallist.

Political events at home and abroad blighted the rest of Akii Bua’s career. Uganda, along with most of Africa, boycotted the 1972 Games, meaning that John never got to defend his Olympic title or be part of the much anticipated showdown with Edwin Moses, the US athlete who went on the dominate the event for more than a decade. Meanwhile, back home, political instability made training difficult, and under the reign of dictator Idi Amin, Akii Bua fled to Kenya where he ended up in a refugee camp before being ‘rescued’ by Puma, his shoe sponsor. He never returned to his former level, and the decades of dictatorships, tribal massacres, human rights violations and general political upheaval that followed meant that Ugandan sport never benefited from the legacy of his Olympic win. It took until 1996 for David Kamoga to double Uganda’s Olympic medal tally. Kamoga finished third to Michael Johnson and Rodger Black in the 400m at the Atlanta Games.

Ugandan success in more recent years has come in the longer distances. Stephen Kiprotich, who won the marathon at both the 2012 Olympic Games and the 2013 World Championships, and Moses Ndiema Kipsiro, 2007 World 5000m champion, triple Commonwealth Games champion and two-time World Senior Cross Country Championship medallist, have been leading the way over the last decade.

Boniface Kiprop won the 2006 Commonwealth Games 10,000m title and is a former world junior record holder at the distance. Dorcus Inzikuru won the inaugural women’s 3000m steeplechase title in 2005. And Solomon Mutai won marathon bronze at the 2015 World Championships.

Ugandans have won 19 medals at the World Cross Country Championships (7 individual medals and 12 team medals), more than Britain, the so-called home of cross country, has managed in a much longer period of involvement. Indeed, only Kenya and Ethiopia have won more medals in the event this century!

Not bad for a country that ‘doesn’t understand cross country.’

Moses Kipsiro (right) on his way to individual silver in the senior men's race at the World Cross Country Championships in Amman, Jordan in 2009.


Rumours and accusations; not all rosy


In the corrupt and often vile world of performance sport, Ugandan athletics is not without its controversy. Accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviour against Ugandan Coach Peter Wemali first surfaced in 2014. Members of the national team alleged that he had sexually harassed them during a training camp. The Kenyan-born Wemali allegedly told the athletes that they could run like their East African counterparts if they got pregnant and had terminations at three months. Wemali would ‘kindly’ be the one to impregnate them.

The teenage alleged victims had confided in Kipsiro, the team captain for the event, who asked the Ugandan Athletics Federation (UAF) to fire Wemali. The national governing body instead dropped Kipsiro from the national team for the 2014 World Half Marathon Championships and later cleared Wemali of any wrongdoing, stating that there was no evidence of sexual abuse involving the coach during the said time period, though they did suspend him.

That was not the end of the matter though. Wemali was arrested in April 2015 after three other girls came forward accusing him of rape (later adjusted by the prosecution to aggravated defilement) and infecting them with HIV. While Wemali was in custody for those charges, another three girls, who had been impregnated by the former police coach over the previous five years, came forward.

Meanwhile, Kipsiro revealed that he received death threats, and feared that he may have to flee the country as a result, he believed, of raising the original allegations.

The internet has no news of Wemali or the case against him since mid-August 2015, when his court appearance was delayed for a second time.

One hopes that things haven’t gone quite to avoid the bad publicity around the case detracting from the success of the upcoming championships. The girls of Uganda deserve better than that.


A much deeper problem


It would appear that the ‘obscure’ locations chosed are not necessarily the choice of the IAAF; often it appears they are genuinely the best of the applications received (though I’m not sure how much effort the IAAF puts into encouraging suitable venues to apply). When Kamplala won their bid to host the 2017 event, their sole opposition for the honour was Manama (Bahrain). Although Hammamet (Tunisia) also submitted an expression of interest to host the 2019 edition, only Aarhus (Denmark) formally bid for the event. Similarly, Guiyang (China) was the only venue to bid for the 2015 event. The problem, it would seem, is far deeper than just the selection of host venues.

While Kampala may have been the best of a pair of applications, it must be pointed out that one of the selling points in Uganda’s original bid was the assurance that the proposed National High Altitude Training Centre in Teryet, Kapchorwa District would be completed and available for pre-championship training.

Almost three years later and nearly seven years since President Museveni pledged full government funding for the project, the training centre is still far from completed. Although a substantial amount of compensation has been paid to land owners at the proposed site, phase 1 building has not even started.

Such slow progress is not unusual in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, but the good news is that the course at the Kololo Ceremonial Grounds, where the 42nd edition of the World’s greatest cross country race will be held, recently hosted the Ugandan trials and it will be ready to welcome participants from as far away as Fiji on 26th March.

We can choose to be there, or to be left out.


And so…


So if you’re unhappy that the World Cross Country Championships will be in Kampala in a few weeks, be unhappy because of Uganda’s failure to protect their female athletes and those who stand up for their justice. Be unhappy because you’ve watched The Last King of Scotland and are still angry at what Idi Amin did to his country. Be unhappy because there is still no anti-doping laboratory in East Africa and because the East African authorities consistently fail to address their doping and corruption issues.

But don’t be unhappy just because the championships is not on your doorstep. You might not have gone anyway.

And don’t forget - and this by no means makes it right - that doping, child sexual abuse, corruption and dictatorship are not unique to Africa.

If recent history has taught us anything, it’s taught us that.






Disclaimer
Of course many Brits can see the world beyond the shores of their own great nation, and many have a very open view of the world. Likewise, there are many outside of the UK - in Ireland and elsewhere - with a very limited view of the world. This article is by no means intended to categorise or insult individuals based on nationality. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm making my own attempt at being sensationalist to get a point across. I'd like to think that the reader can take that aspect of the article in the tongue-in-cheek way in which it was intended.