Outdated tactics, poor training cost Kenya gold at Commonwealth Games

In the first few days of the global showpiece, Kenyan enthusiasts remained in nightclubs until late and into the wee hours of the morning to watch the action live from Hayward Field. Hopes were high, but they lost steam after the country failed to dominate its traditional races such as the 3000m steeplechase, 1500m and the marathon.

Athletes, who represented Kenya in the 1990s, attribute the poor show in Oregon to a failure by coaches to adopt modern coaching.

Former 3000m steeplechase Olympic champion Mathew Birir says Kenya’s performance collapsed due to poor tactics and late preparations.

Birir, who claimed steeplechase gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, is fearful the country may not impress much at the Commonwealth Games as well because there is little time to correct the tactical blunders that cost the national team its traditional races in Oregon.

“We lost to Soufiane El Bakkali (of Morocco) and Lamecha Girma (Ethiopia) in the men’s 3000m steeplechase because we blundered in our tactics. The rest of the world has known our secret. They know that we win in fast-pace races and they decided to be tactical by maintaining a slow pace and finishing fast,” Birir says.

He adds: “Team Kenya, in that scenario, would have sacrificed one athlete who would have played the rabbit, and we would have defeated our competitors. If we try that in the Commonwealth, we might redeem some medals.”

Birir also raised concerns with fitness, noting that a number of athletes such as 5000m star Nicholas Kimeli and his 1500m compatriot Abel Kipsang went to the World Championships as world leaders, but could not finish in podium places.

Kipsang at a previous meet.

According to the legendary steeplechaser, a number of Kenya’s medal prospects might have overworked at the departure training camp, meaning they were not physically and mentally fit.

“As things stand, we are not scientifically progressing. Our counterparts, Uganda and Ethiopia, have an all-year-round residential camp that is fully supported by the government where medal prospects are trained. The best coaches are tasked to prepare athletes in those camps. Kenya needs to have three such training camps.

“We should not rely on training camps run by management agents because they are here for business and the country wants medals,” Birir told The Nairobian Sport.

Former 3000m steeplechase world beaters, Moses Kiptanui and Wilson Boit Kipketer, also say Kenyan coaching styles have not changed since the 1970s.

Former steeplechase champion Moses Kiptanui  [Peter Ochieng, Standard].

Kiptanui, a three-time world champion (1991, 1993 and 1995), says the traditional stopwatch, using unpalatable language to push athletes to run fast times and the commando style of training is no longer yielding desirable results at global races.

“If you are shocked with our results in Oregon, then be prepared for the worst because by now, we would have learnt from the Tokyo Olympics and previous global races. It is all about our rigid coaching. We can’t use 1970 coaching tactics in 2022, it can’t work.

“It is not just about going to the roads or tracks to build body strength. Look at how we lost the steeplechase and 1500m. Athletes from other countries were winning without much struggle. That tells you that our coaching is not producing the best talents because times are changing and we are not focusing on mental strength and building team spirits because we think other countries are not aiming at dethroning us,” Kiptanui, who coached steeplechase big shots such as Ezekiel Kemboi after retirement, says.

He says it is time top officials at the country’s athletics federation, Athletics Kenya (AK), pave the way for fresh leaders.

“We respect our elders who are managing our athletics at AK, but it is now time to have fresh blood. The country needs athletics managers who offer the best solutions to our current challenges,” Kiptanui suggests.

On fitness, he says, “It is upon the athlete to declare their fitness. In 1992, I felt that I was not fit to compete at the Barcelona Olympics and I withdrew.  I later regained form and went ahead to win other global races.”

Kipketer, the 1997 3000m steeplechase winner, on the other hand, says management of athletics should be critically looked at and evaluated after the Commonwealth Games.

According to Kipketer, AK still owes the country answers on why Kenya, the world’s athletics powerhouse, dropped two places in this year’s World Championships. “I was one of the best 3000m steeplechase athletes, and I disengaged myself from athletics soon after my retirement nearly two decades ago. I didn’t want to train young talents because not everyone can be a coach. Let us not lie to ourselves that all good athletes can be coaches upon retirement from active running,” he explains.

Kipketer says Ethiopia and Uganda could be toppling Kenya in its traditional races because of ill preparations and lack of adjustment to changing times.

“Ferdinand Omanyala has shown us that Kenya has the potential to win a medal in the sprints but we failed to prepare him adequately for the World Championships. It is also a chance to build a sprint team from Omanyala’s success but we seem not to be reading the signs of the time,” the retired athlete says.

An athlete who surprisingly claimed victory in a top city marathon in Europe, says athletes are left to fight for their own glory, with coaches only offering training programmes.

The athlete says many young talents struggle with tough conditions set by coaches, who determine whether you secure a contract with a sports management company or not.

“Coaches do a good job, but they must change certain traditions. Today, we still have coaches who don’t sit down with the athlete and advise them. They simply look at your performance and if not impressive, they tell you off, and that discourages young talents. There is a need for coaches who inspire hope. There are young athletes who quit because of impatient coaches who want to satisfy managers,” the athlete claims.

AK Youth Development Director Barnaba Korir says it was disheartening to see the country lose out on the medal bracket in its traditional races.

Korir called for a sober discussion following the disappointment in Oregon, adding there is a chance for the country to redeem its image as an athletics powerhouse at the Commonwealth Games with the hope that coaches learnt valuable lessons and that they were working on rectifying their mistakes.

“Hats off to double Olympic 5000m silver medallist Hellen Obiri and world 5000m silver medallist Margaret Chelimo for the bravery and determination showcased to win the silver and bronze, respectively in the women’s 10,000m. And, who can forget Faith Kipyegon, who cemented her status as a legend with a second world title in the women’s 1500m?” said Korir.

“Such heroic feats should give every Kenyan a reason to smile and to look forward to the future with optimism. At the time of writing this, we are the second best nation from Africa, sitting third in the medal standings behind the US and Ethiopia.”

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