Many will agree with me that names like Aziz Zakari, Ignisious Gaisah, Magaret Simpson, Vida Anim and others in the country’s athletics pale have lingered on for long. I heard of Aziz Zakari, for instance, twelve years ago at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, where he made the finals of the men’s 100m race. Over the past few years, these same names keep popping up anytime there is the Olympics or a world championship. Admittedly, that trend has kept me wondering whether there are young ones in the country to successfully take the baton from these great Ghanaian athletes.
In my secondary school days, athletics occupied such a big space in the sports calendar that students could not just turn away from the temptation of sometimes breaking curfews just to be at the Accra Sports Stadium to watch athletics. I saw skirmishes of this recently on tube when the Ashanti Regional inter-colleges competition was held. But I still think the excitement that greeted our days cannot be paralleled. Arguable, isn’t it? On a more serious note, my fears of Ghana not producing any better local athletes to take the baton from the crop mentioned above was corroborated in 2011, when the country failed to field any young athlete at the world championships held in Lille Metropole, France. It just told me one thing – the future was gloomy!
Maria Tsakos Juniors Championship
However, my fears have recently been quelled beyond exceeding proportions. This development was as a result of the 4th edition of the Maria Tsakos Juniors Championship I witnessed in the Northern Region. The national U-19 championship was held at the Tamale Sports Stadium. It drew young athletes from across the ten regions of Ghana. Not surprisingly, Ashanti Region scooped almost all there was on the tracks. The only medals they failed to grab went to the senior national athletes, who had to compete in selected events to keep up shape ahead of the Africa Championship to be held in Benin in June.
After just two days of the championship, I gathered that the future of Ghana athletics is not as bleak as I had always envisaged. The youthfully exuberant athletes stretched their muscles to, in some cases, beat their seniors.
In the morning of the first day, I spotted one of the athletes training with a somewhat celestial verve. After talking to this athlete, I got to know he was poised for action on the still-intact tartan tracks at the Tamale Sports Stadium. Emmanuel Dasor, later on that day, won the boys’ 100m event and came second in the 200m. Indeed, this promising athlete has all that it takes to be a world competitor.
His character on the tracks is similar to Usain Bolt’s though he told me Asafa Powell is his idol. Before racing to win the 100m finals, Dasor made light work of his competitors in the heats as he slowed down a few meters to the finishing line characteristic of Usain Bolt during heats. This even drew some of the officials to caution him since they were using all the athletes’ natural times in order to calculate their natural speed rates. His gritty character, which makes him a shining athlete, showed when he strolled onto the tracks for the 200m on Day Two. Though he had it easy winning the heats in that event, Dasor was given a good run for his own money when he was beaten by Solomon Afful, who is also from the Ashanti Region. These two athletes – Afful and Dasor – were pivotal in helping the Ashanti Region to its ‘Jamaican-style’ third medal in the sprint events.
It got more promising in the 110m hurdles when a junior athlete beat a senior competitor in the finals. Issah Mohammed’s time of 14.64 seconds was enough to get him the gold medal at the expense of Kwaku Nsiah. Daniel Gyasi also gave national athlete Nicholas Fordjour the same dose in the 400m.
East Africans are unrivalled in long distance events globally and any West African athlete training to win even an African race in 1 500m, 5000m and 10 000m will need more motivation to do so. Thus, the finishing power and strength with which young Matthew Nantieri won the boys’ 5 000m finals reminded me of Kenya’s Ezekiel Kemboi at the 2011 World Athletics Championship in Daegu, South Korea. Kemboi wriggled a Kenyan dance just beyond the finishing line after winning his 3 000m steeplechase race. I doffed my hat for the Kenyan immediately he did that simply because scarcely does one find an athlete stop, and in Kemboi’s case stand, after a race just beyond the finishing line to use extra energy to make a dance. One is always sure to see an athlete run to the ground panting profusely. Nonetheless, the Kemboi style was how Nantieri finished his race. The Brong Ahafo Region-based Nantieri did a look-alike of the Kenyan when he stopped just beyond the finishing line to incite spectators with some gestures.
The field events did not also end without some promises. Isaac Nkansah Agyekum’s gallant jump of 7.68m was just 0.18 short of what African long-jump record holder Ignisious Gaisah did at the finals of the just ended World Indoor Games in Istanbul, Turkey. I was not surprised at all when I was later told that ‘Fanta’, as Agyekum is popularly called, has been conscripted into the national team and has had eight weeks of intensive training with the seniors prior to the Tamale championship. He later told me that but for an advice from his coach, he would have made 8.00m, which incidentally is the standard qualifying jump for the Olympics.
The girls had more to do on the tracks as they had to participate in more events with the seniors. Mary Quayson came second to Dorcas Gyimah in the 100m final. The manner with which she won the semi-finals just will tell an expert that she is built for greatness. Indeed, the Janet Amponsahs, Beatrice Gyamans and the Dorcas Gyimahs left no stone unturned as they raced faster than their junior mates in most events.
2012 World juniors Championship
This year’s world junior championship is scheduled to be held just two weeks before the start of the London Olympic Games. It is scheduled to be held at the Estadi Olimpis Lluis Companys in Barcelona and from what I saw in Tamale, Ghanaians should be assured of medals IF the Ghana Athletics Association confirms participation. I will definitely follow how some of these talents will fair with their global counterparts. Indeed, before that global competition, these young athletes will have to show their mettle against their West African counterparts when Ghana hosts the ECOWAS Games in April.
Let me quickly mention that much can only be desired from these athletes if much is given to them – cui multum datum. In other words, the confidence and will to train and become future greats like the Aziz Zakaris, the Ignisious Gaisahs and the Magaret Simpsons can only be sustained if the sport’s authorities adequately make provisions for them in their timetable. Regular training schedules should be drafted for them and more periodic competitions like the one held in Tamale should be organized to keep them in shape for major competitions. Also, more investment needs to be channeled into training coaches. I had the opportunity of a chit-chat with one of the coaches. He confessed that as the only trainer in his region, he gets stressed after just one trip to a part of his region of superintendence for instance. He mentioned that athletics need more coaches in order to keep growing the many talents that continue to be unearthed in the country. Indeed, given the performance of his region in athletics, I think Ghana will do better if more investment is put in this area of the sport.