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The emergence of Africa as an athletics power

For The Guardian

Published: May 14, 2014

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As the inaugural International Association of Athletics Federation’s (IAAF) World Relay Championships approaches, we decided to take a look at the emergence of the African continent as an athletics power. Africa has always had great sprinters and greater long distance runners, but it took the independence movement across the continent in the early 60s to speed this development along.

It should be noted that the continent is extremely large, and in the east and north they are known for distance runners, and in the west are the sprinters. In the east and north, there have been sprinters, quarter-milers and quarter-mile hurdlers who have won world and Olympic titles. South Africa has had both world-ranked sprinters as well as an Olympic marathon champion.

The barefoot Ethiopian

The world was introduced to African runners at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, when barefoot runner Abebe Bikila took on and defeated the world in the marathon in the eternal city. He was from Ethiopia, a nation which was invaded by Italy years prior. His time was 2:15.16.2. Four years later in Tokyo, Bikila repeated his victory, this time in a new record of 2:12.11.2.

The success continues

Also in Tokyo, Kenya started its onslaught in world athletics when Wilson Kiprugut captured the 800 meters (m) bronze in 1:45.9. Tunisian Mohammed Gammoudi finished second in the 10,000m to the USA’s Billy Mills in 28:24.8.

Dizzying heights in Mexico City

The big issue at the Mexico City Games was the altitude. The altitude of the city was good for the sprints and bad for the distance events. Athletes from Kenya lived and trained at heights, and this was perfect for them. Kip Keino of Kenya defeated the USA’s Jim Ryun, who had set the world record in the mile two years prior. The Kenyan defeated Ryun 3:34.9 to 3:37.8 by nearly three seconds.

Steeple chaser Amos Biwot of Kenya captured his event in 8:51.0. Teammate Benjamin Kogo finished second in 8:51.6. In the 5,000m, Tunisian Gammoudi led an African sweep in 14:05.0. Keino ran 14:05.2, and finishing in third was Kenya’s Naftali Temu in 14:06.4. Temu captured the 10,000m in 29:27.4 to Ethiopia’s Mamo Wolde’s 29:28.0 and Gammoudi’s 29:34.2. Wilson Kiprugut improved his Tokyo performance to second place and 1:44.5.

Finally, Kenya won the silver medal in the 4x400m relay in 2:59.6, an amazing performance for Kenya.

Memories of Munich

Munich saw the emergence of another great African athlete, Ugandan John Aki-Bua, who set a new world record in the 400m hurdles. Aki-Bua was the first person to smash 48 seconds with a 47.82 seconds clocking. The USA has dominated the men’s 400m throughout the history of the games. They continued this tradition in Munich with Vince Matthews in first in 44.66 seconds and Wayne Collett in second in 44.80 seconds. Kenya’s Julius Sang finished third in 44.92 seconds.

The officials felt that the two USA athletes did not respect the medal ceremony and they were ejected from the games. As a result, they were unable to field a team for the 4x400m relay and Kenya captured the gold in 2:59.8. Dr. Leroy Walker, coach at North Carolina Central University, coached Sang and the Kenyan team as well as the Ethiopia team. He served as the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1992 to 1996.

Kip Keino captured the 3,000m steeplechase in 8:23.64 and finished second in the 1,500m in 3:36.81. Kenyan Ben Jipcho finished second in the steeplechase in 8:24.62. Tunisian Gammoudi, in his third games, finished second in the 5,000m in 13:27.33. Kenyan Mike Boit won the bronze medal in the 800m in 1:46.01. Ethiopian Miruts Yifter finished third in the 10,000m in 27:40.96, and teammate Mamo Wolde won the bronze in the marathon in 2:15.08.4.

Post Munich

The continent has won a hefty 50 gold medals in the Olympic Games since 1980, having boycotted the 1976 Montreal Games due to the apartheid policy in South Africa. This includes the women’s long jump by Nigerian Chioma Ajunwa in Atlanta in 1996, and the two captured by a Cameroon triple jumper in 2004 and 2008.

In London, African athletes had the least amount of gold medals since Barcelona 20 years prior.

The IAAF World Championships

African nations have done extremely well in the world championships winning a total of 92 gold medals, nearly twice the number they captured in all the Olympic Games.

African relay performances in world championships

South Africa is the only African nation to win a World Championships relay title. This happened in Edmonton in 2001 when the South African team ran 38.47 seconds for the 4x100m relay victory. Nigeria finished in second in this event in Athens in 1997, running 38.07 seconds. In Stuttgart in 1993, Kenya won the silver medal in the 4x400m relay, running 2:59.82 behind the USA’s world record of 2:54.29.

South Africa captured a silver medal in this event in Daegu in 2011 when they finished behind the USA, running 2:59.83. Nigeria finished third in Gothenburg in 1995, running 3:03.18. South Africa also finished third in this event in 1999 in Seville with a 3:00.20 clocking.

There has never been an African women’s relay team to win a medal at the world championships.

African nations in top eight all-time relay bests

We can put things into perspective when we look at those African nations whose relay teams are in the top all-time bests. On April 14 this year in Nairobi, the Kenyan women’s 4x1,500m relay team set a new world record of 17:08.17. They should be tough to beat at the world relays in May.

Kenya also has the best ever men’s 4x800m time, 7:02.43, which they ran on August 25, 2006 in Brussels. Their team included Joseph Muta, William Yiampoy, Israel Kombitch and Wilfred Bungei. South Africa has the second best time of 7:04.70 done in Stuttgart on June 6, 1999.

Kenya has the best men’s 4x1,500m time with a 14:36.23 clocking done also in Brussels on September 4, 2009. The team consisted of William Biwot, Gideon Gathimba, Geoffrey Rono and Augustus Choge.

Kenya has so many world-class middle distance and distance runners that there is a trend for a large number of their athletes to transfer allegiance to nations around the world, which permits a larger number of them to participate in world championships and Olympic Games.

Nigeria has the best African performances in the 4x100m and 4x400m relays, with eighth place all-time in both. They ran 37.94 seconds in the semi-final in Athens in 1997 and 2:58.68 to win in Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Best African relay performances in London and Moscow

In London in 2012, both Kenya and South Africa made the final of the men’s 4x400m relay. Kenya was disqualified and South Africa did not finish the race.

In the women’s division, Nigeria finished fourth in the 4x400m relay in 3:26.64 and fourth in the 4x100m relay in 42.64 seconds.

Last year at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, surprisingly no African team participated in the men’s 4x100m relay. In the men’s 4x400m relay, Nigeria performed best, finishing in seventh place in their heat in 3:04.52. Botswana finished behind them in eighth place in a time of 3:05.74. In the second heat, Kenya finished seventh, in 3:06.29.

For the women, the continent’s only team in the 4x100m, Nigeria, was disqualified in their heat. Things got better in the 4x400m relay when they finished sixth in the final, in 3:27.57.

Leadership of the African Athletics Confederation

IAAF President Lamine Diack of Senegal had quite a positive effect on the development of the sport in the continent. He served as president of the confederation for about 30 years and was a member of the IAAF Council since 1976. Currently, the president of the African Athletics Confederation is Hamad Kalkaba of Cameroon. Africa has 53 member federations, more than any other continent in the IAAF.

African teams participating in the world relays

Of the 50 teams confirming their participation in the inaugural IAAF World Relays, May 24 and 25, 10 are from Africa. They are Algeria, Dijibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Sierra Leone and Uganda.

Each of them, with the exception of Egypt, Ghana, and Sierra Leone, have had athletes who were Olympic and world champions. They will certainly add to and in some cases dominate the competition.

Other than the Commonwealth Games in Kingston in 1966, the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968, the University Games in Mexico City in 1979 and the IAAF World Junior Championships in Kingston in 2002, this will be the only time that teams from Africa participate in the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) region, which is known for world-class sprinters and jumpers, but with the exception of Mexico, not distance runners.

Teams from African nations are expected to put on a display in The Bahamas that will be remembered for many years.

African gold medalists

1980 - Moscow

5000m- Miruts Yifter- Ethiopia- 13:21.0

10000m- Miruts Yifter- Ethiopia- 27:42.7


1984 - Los Angeles

3000m Steeplechase- Julius Korir- Kenya-8:11.90

5000m- Said Aouita- Morocco- 13:05.59

400m Women Hurdles- Nawal El Moutawakel- Morocco- 54.61sec


1988 - Seoul

800m- Paul Ereng- Kenya- 1:43.45

1500m- Peter Rono- Kenya- 3:35.96

3000m Steeplechase- Julius Kariuki- Kenya- 8:05.51

5000m- John Ngui- Kenya- 13:11.70

10000m- Moulay Brahim Boutayeb- Morocco- 27:21.46


1992 - Barcelona

800m- William Tanui- Kenya- 1:43.66

3000m Steeplechase- Matthew Korir- Kenya- 8:08.84

10000m- Khalid Skah- Morocco- 27:46.70


1996 - Atlanta

1500m- Noureddine Morcelli- Algeria- 3:35.78

3000m Steeplechase- Josh Keter- Kenya- 8:07.12

5000m Women- Pauline Konga- Kenya- 15:03.49

5000m- Venuste Niyongabo- Burundi- 13:07.96

10000m- Haile Gebrselassie- Ethiopia- 27:07.39

Marathon Women- Fatuma Roba- Ethiopia- 2:26.05

Marathon Men- Josia Thugwane- South Africa- 2:12.36

Long Jump Women- Chioma Ajunwa- Nigeria- 7.12m


2000 - Sydney

800m Women- Maria Mutola- Mozambique- 1:56.15

1500m- Noah Ngeny- Kenya- 3:32.07

3000m Steeplechase- Reuben Kosgei- Kenya- 8:21.43

5000m- Million Wolde- Ethiopia- 13:35.49

10000m- Haile Gebrselassie- Ethiopia- 27:18.20

1000m Women- Deratu Tulu- Ethiopia- 30:17.40

Marathon- Gezahenge Aberi- Ethiopia- 2:10.11

4x400m relay- Men- Nigeria- 2:58.68


2004 - Athens

1500m- Hicham El Guerrouj- Morocco- 3:34.18

3000m Steeplechase- Ezekiel Kemboi- Kenya- 8:05.81

5000m Men- Hicham El Guerrouj- Morocco- 13:14.39

5000m Women- Meseret Defar-Ethiopia- 14:45.65

10000m- Kenenisa Bekele- Ethiopia- 27:05.10

Triple jump- Francoise MBango Etone- Cameroon-15.30m


2008 - Beijing

800m- Wilfred Bungei- Kenya- 1:44.65

800m Women- Pamela Jelimo- Kenya- 1:54.87

1500m- Asbel Kirop- Kenya- 3:33.11

1500m Women- Nancy Legat- Kenya- 4:01.23?

5000m- Kenenisa Bekele- Ethiopia- 12:57.82

5000m Women- Tirunesh Debaba- Ethiopia- 15:41.40

10000m-Kenenisa Bekele- Ethiopia-27:01.17

100000m Women- Tirunesh Debaba- Kenya- 29:54.66

3000m Steeplechase- Brimin Kiprop Kipruto- Kenya- 8:10.34

Marathon- Samuel Kamau Wansiro- Kenya- 2:06.32

Triple Jump- Francoise MBango Etone-Cameroon- 15.39m


2012 - London

800m- David Rudisha- Kenya- 1:40.91 WR

1500m- Taofik Makhloufi- Algeria- 3:34.08

5000m Women- Meseret Defar- Ethiopia- 15:05.25

10000m Women- Tirunesh Debaba- Ethiopia- 30:20.75

In London African athletes had the least amount of Gold medals since Barcelona twenty years previous.


The IAAF World Championships

African nations have done extremely well in the world championships winning a total of 92 gold medals, nearly twice the number they captured in all the Olympic Games.


1987 - Rome

800m- Billy Konchella- Kenya-1:43.06

1500m- Abdi Bile- Somalia- 3:36.80

5000m- Said Aouita- Morocco- 13:26.44

10000m- Paul Kipkoech- Kenya- 27:38.63

Marathon- Douglas Wakiihuri- Kenya-2:11.48


1991 - Tokyo

800m- Billy Konchella- Kenya- 1:43.99

1500m- Noureddine Morceli- Algeria-3:32.84

1500m Women- Hassiba Boulmerka- Algeria- 4:02.21

5000m- Yobes Ondieki- Kenya- 13:14.45

10000m- Moses Tanui- Kenya- 27:38.74

400m Hurdles- Samuel Matete- Zambia- 47.64sec

3000m Steeplechase- Moses Kiptanui- Kenya- 8:12.59


1993 - Stuttgart

200m- Frankie Fredericks- Namibia- 19.85sec

800m- Paul Ruto- Kenya- 1:44.71

800m Women- Maria Mutola- Mozambique- 1:55.43

1500m- Noureddine Morceli- Algeria- 3:34.24

5000m- Ismael Kirui- Kenya- 13:02.75 WJR

10000m- Haile Gebrsellassie- Ethiopia- 27:46.02

3000m Steeplechase- Moses Kiptanui- Kenya- 8:04.16


1995 - Gothenburg

Women’s 1500m- Hassiba Boulmerka- Algeria- 4:02.42

5000m- Ismael Kirui- Kenya- 13:16.77

1500m- Noureddine Morceli- Algeria- 3:33.73

3000m Steeplechase- Moses Kiptanui- Kenya- 8:04.16

5000m- Haile Gebrselassie- Ethiopia- 27:12.95


1997 - Athens

1500m- Hicham El Guerrouj- Morocco- 3:35.83

5000m- Daniel Komen- Kenya- 13:07.38

10000m- Haile Gebrselassie- Ethiopia- 27:24.50

10000m Women- Sally Barsosi- Kenya- 31:32.92

400m Hurdles Women- Nezha Biduane- Morocco- 52.97

3000m Steeplechase- Wilson Boit Kipketer- Kenya- 8:05.84


1999 - Seville

1500m- Hicham El Guerrouj- Morocco- 3:27.61

3000m Steeplechase- Christopher Kosgei- Kenya- 8:12.09

5000m- Salah Hissou- Morocco- 12:58.13

10000m- Haile Gebrselassie- Ethiopia- 27:57.27

10000m Women- Gete Wami- Ethiopia- 30:24.56

400m Hurdles- Nezha Bidouane- Morocco- 53.34sec


2001- Edmonton

400m Women- Amy MBack Thiam- Senegal- 49.86sec

800m Women- Maria Mutola- Mozambique- 1:57.17

1500m- Hicham El Guerrouj- Morocco- 3:30.68

5000m- Richard Limo- Kenya- 13:00.77

10000m Women- Deratu Tulu- Ethiopia- 31:48.81

10000m –Charles Kamathi- Kenya- 27:53.25

Steeplechase- Rueben Kosgei- Kenya- 8:15.6

Marathon- Gezahegne Abera- Ethiopia- 2:12.42


2003 - Paris

800m- Djabir Said-Guerni- Algeria- 1:44.81

800m Women- Maria Mutola- Mozambique- 1:59.89

1500m- Hicham El Guerrouj- Morocco- 3:31.77

5000m- Eliud Kipchoge- Kenya- 12:52.79

5000m Women- Meseret Dibaba- Ethiopia- 14:51.72

10000m – Kenenisa Bekele- Ethiopia- 26:49.57

10000m Women- Berhane Adere- Ethiopia- 30:04.18

Marathon- Jaouad Gharib- Morocco- 2:08.31

Marathon Women- Catherine Ndereba- Kenya- 2:25.55


2005 - Helsinki

5000m- Benjamin Limo- Kenya- 13:32.55

5000m Women- Tirunesh Dibaba- Ethiopia- 14:38.59

10000m- Kenenisa Bekele- Ethiopia- 27:08.33

10000m Women- Tirunesh Dibaba- Ethiopia- 30:24.02

Steeplechase Women- Dorcas Inzikuru- Uganda- 9:18.24

Marathon- Jaoud Charib- Morocco- 2:10.10

Marathon Women- Catherine Ndereba- Kenya- 2:22.01


2007 - Osaka

800m- Alfred Kirwa Yego- Kenya- 1:47.09

800m Women- Janeth Jepkosgei- Kenya- 1:56.04

Steeplechase- Brimin Kipruto- Kenya- 8:13.52

10000m- Kenenisa Bekele- Ethiopia- 27:05.90

5000m Women- Meseret Defar- Ethiopia- 14:57.91

10000m Women- Tirunesh Debaba- Ethiopia- 31:55.41

Marathon- Luke Kibet- Kenya-2:15.59

Marathon Women- Catherine Ndereba- Kenya- 2:30.37


2009 - Berlin

800m- Mbulaeni Mulaudzi- South Africa- 1:53.29

800m Women- Caster Semenya- South Africa- 1:55.41

3000m Steeplechase- Ezekiel Kemboi- Kenya- 8:00.43

5000m- Kenenisa Bekele- Ethiopia- 13:17.09

5000m Women- Vivian Cheruiyot- 14:57.97

10000m- Kenenisa Bekele- Ethiopia- 26:46.31

10000m Women- Linet Masai- Kenya- 30:51.24

Marathon- Abel Kirui- Kenya- 2:06.54


2011 - Daegu

400m Women- Amantle Montsho- Botswana-49.56sec

800m- David Rudisha- Kenya- 1:43.91

1500m- Asbel Kiprop- Kenya- 3:35.69

5000m Women- Vivian Cheruiyot- Kenya- 14:55.36

10000m- Ibrahim Jeylan- Ethiopia- 27:13.81

10000m Women- Vivian Cheruiyot- Kenya- 30:48.98

Steeplechase- Ezekiel Kemboi- Kenya- 8:14.35

Marathon Women- Edna Kiplich- Kenya- 2:28.43

Marathon- Abel Kirui- Kenya- 2:07.38


2013 - Moscow

800m- Mohammed Aman- Ethiopia- 1:43.31

800m Women- Eunice Jepkoech- Kenya- 1:57.38

1500m- Asbel Kiprop- Kenya- 3:36.28

3000m Steeplechase- Ezekiel Kemboi- Kenya- 8:06.01

5000m Women- Meseret Defar- Ethiopia- 14:50.19

10000m Women- Tirunesh Dibaba- Ethiopia- 30:43.35

Marathon- Stephen Kiprotich- Kenya- 2:09.51

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