After a dearth of competitions this season as a result of the global Coronavirus pandemic that has ravaged the world, more African athletes will this weekend in Nairobi, have a chance to participate in the ongoing World Athletics Continental tour.
The African leg of the tour will take place on Saturday October 3rd, and four Nigerian athletes: Usheoritse Itsekiri, Jerry Jakpa, Emmanuel Ojeli and Joy Udo-Gabriel have been listed in the provisional entry lists for the Kip Keino Classics meet.
With no sporting events during the lockdown, and limited international flights because of restricted travels around the world, this is coming as a much needed respite for athletes who couldn’t travel to Europe to compete in meets.
The pick of the cherry has to be the men’s 200m which is expected to provide a lot of spark, going by the calibre of athletes in the provisional entry lists. Ivory Coast’s Arthur Cisse tops the list and going by his recent form, pacing to an Ivorian record of 20.23s last weekend in Doha, he undoubtedly remains the favourite for this event.
Although Cisse might be the installed favourite, there are a lot of athletes who are not just turning up to complete the numbers. South Africa’s Sinesipho Dambile, is one to keep an eye on, and the 18-year old has already shown he has some star-power, clocking a Season’s Best (SB) of 20.47s back in March, just before sports was halted. Dambile has a Personal Best (PB) of 20.43s.
Veteran American sprinter, Mike Rodgers is also listed for this event as are two Nigerian sprinters, Itsekiri and Jakpa who both represented Nigeria in the men’s 4x200m at the World Relays in Yokohama last year.
For Itsekiri who will be running in his first competitive race since last year’s World Championships, he is taking this weekend’s race as part of his preparatory programme towards Tokyo 2021 Olympics, having already qualified for the men’s 100m.
“I have not run in a very long time, I just want to get a feel of competing again, to know what to work on before next year,” Itsekiri said. Having travelled to the United States before Covid-19 grounded virtually every life activity, the African 100m Bronze medallist hoped to build on his 2019 form that saw him run a PB of 10.02s.
Although he is the 100m defending champion at the National Sports festival, he is not yet sure if he would defend that crown, with his sights now firmly set on next season. “I am not competing this year to take anything from it. If it happens (NSF) this year, I might actually go there not to win it. I might be there, I don’t really know yet if I will be there. All my preparations are being geared towards Tokyo 2021.”
Last year, Itsekiri defeated his National teammate, Jakpa to win the 200m title at the Nigerian trials in Kaduna clocking 20.95s (his fourth sub 21s in his career, all in 2019). This Saturday both athletes go up in some sort of rematch in Nairobi, and Itsekiri is not worried about the prospects of facing Jakpa again.
“I am not going into the race with a rematch mind, whatever happens, happens. I just want to go there and execute what I have been working on in training. I am not really a 200m guy, I compete in the 200m with an open mind. For now, if there will be a rematch it will be next year in the season, now should not be a rematch. A rematch is when we are both fit and fighting for a spot, and you can say, ‘now this is a rematch” he said.
Both athletes are downplaying any rivalry in the 200m, and for Jakpa, he relishes the opportunity to go up against him. “It’s always nice to compete against ‘Dushos’ (Itsekiri), he is a good friend of mine, he is a good competitor, he is a guy who runs well. I am excited and positive after the disappointment of the National Championships (finishing 2nd in the 200m in Kaduna.)”
“I am just excited to go out there (in Kenya) and give myself a good outing. I am not looking forward to running against anybody or running down anybody. I just want to go there, if I can hit a PB, fine. As far as I go there and make a very remarkable outing to close the year off and hope for the festival as well. It will be very very exciting for me” he said.
Jakpa is one of three Making of Champions (MoC) athletes who will be in Kenya, and having missed the trip to Europe because of Coronavirus, this is a trip that excites him. “This makes me feel positive. Finally after expecting to travel this year and I couldn’t because of the Covid19 pandemic, now we finally have a competition to go to and I have been feeling good in training.”
“It’s an exciting prospect to leave the country once again in another year. It shows the continuation process, and how far I have come with Making of Champions as an athlete, the appreciation I have gotten as an athlete. The appreciation MoC has gotten as a club to be able to be getting into these big meets, not only in Africa, in Europe and other parts of the world. I am excited to be able to make it to Kenya.” Last season, Jakpa ran 20.59s three times across meets in Europe and Nigeria.
For Ojeli, the trip to Kenya brings back memories of his first trip outside Nigeria last year, travelling to Botswana and surprising even himself to win his 400m heat with a PB of 45.91s. It’s almost De Ja Vu for him and he wants to maximize this opportunity, acknowledging that he is not yet at his best.
Just before the pandemic, Ojeli started his season with the shorter sprints running a 200m PB of 20.94s in Akure, and he was hoping to transit that form into the 400m. “I was in a very good shape, and I eagerly anticipated to open up my 400m account in Benin just before the pandemic struck,” Ojeli said.
Now he will finally run in this first 400m in 2020 this weekend: “I have been looking forward to that, but due to the pandemic and everything it didn’t happen before now. I started training on the track again about two weeks ago, and training with the spikes have been feeling somehow. Let’s see how it goes, this is my first 400m for the year, let’s watch out.”
The women’s 200m is another event that should thrill the spectators and fans watching from all over the world. Egypt’s Bassant Hemida who recently ran a 100m NR, will hope to carry that form into the 200m on Saturday. Her current PB stands at 22.83s which she won the African Games Silver medal with in Morocco. That’s a time she would hope to improve on when she squares up against Great Britain’s Kristal Auwah and Nigeria’s Udo-Gabriel.
This is not the first time Udo-Gabriel is meeting Hemida, having competed against her in the 100m final in Rabat last year. Although the 200m is not Udo-Gabriel’s strongest event, she is glad that she still has an event to compete in this year, having totally given up on the season.
“It’s been several months with no trainings, and some months as well training without a competition, finally we have one. I am very happy. I wasn’t expecting any competition, I thought the season was over, but hearing about Kenya raised my hopes a bit.”
“I look forward to running the 200m in Kenya, I am sure it will go well. If you set your mind towards something, I feel like I could do whatever I set my mind on. Hopefully Kenya will be better,” Udo-Gabriel said on hoping to improve her 200m performances.
There will be a horde of World champions taking part in the long distance events. Muktar Eedris will be going up against his Ethiopian counterparts Selemon Barega and Hagos Gebrhiwet in the 5000m, but the home fans will be worried and hoping their star Conseslus Kipruto will be fit enough for the 3000m Steeplechase, after he Did Not Finish (DNF) in Doha last week.