Helsinki success hides poor state of Ghana athletics
AT the Ghana Athletics Association they are still excited about the huge success of the country's contingent at the recent World Athletics Championships. Athletics chief Sandy Osei Agyemang spoke of the excitement that had gripped the entire team as Ignatius Gaisah leaped for silver in Helsinki. It represented, he said, a high point for Ghana athletics. It's a fact you cannot dispute. The six-man Ghana delegation that went to Helsinki weren't expected to do much. Since 1983 when the first championship was held in the same city, Ghana had never won a single medal. And in the run up to the Finnish job, there wasn't much chance of that changing. Ghana's biggest medal hope was Aziz Zakari, whose two out of three victories in the Golden league series in the 100meters, had heightened hopes of a medal. But he is well known for losing the plot on the big stage when it matters most and just two days into the championships, he provided his growing bands of critics with more ammunition to rip into him. It's a familiar story by now, I guess but one still worth looking back on. Into the final event with the second fastest time in the championships behind the eventual winner Justin Gatlin, Zakari was expected to improve Ghana's zero medal haul by at least winning a medal. But as he did in the Sydney and Athens Olympics, he pulled up last claiming later in an interview with the BBC that he just couldn't move. Thankfully for Zakari, the efforts of Simpson (pictured) and Gaisah saved him the traditional taunting that accompanied the last two flops. Margaret Simpson put in great effort to come third behind the well known rivals Carolina Kluft of Sweden and Eunice Barber, originally from Sierra Leone but now performing for France in the heptathlon. The bronze medal was Ghana's first and a historic one but there was better things to come because just before the championships ended Gaisah leaped to silver medal in the men's long jump behind the American Dwight Phillips. Two medals in one championships from a six-man team is indeed a healthy haul. Yet there are wider questions beyond the decorative medals that Ghana athletics must face up to which makes getting freaked out about Helsinki a bit premature. When the excitement over the medals die down eventually, the men at the GAA will discover a sport in an incredibly poor state, lacking in morale and whose pool of talent some is running thin by the day.
The good thing for every athletics fan is that Sandy Osei Agyemang, the man tasked with reviving the sport in Ghana is very much aware of the problems. Prior to leaving for the Helsinki event, the two-time Olympian in the sprints said the job of reviving athletics in Ghana is a massive one.
For instance, officials had to abandon the thought of taking along local athletes to the championships because Ghana's mode of timing is outmoded. The international athletics association does not recognise hand timed event which is the order of the day in Ghana.
That had serious implications for local athletes but it is nothing compared with the problems of facilities that the locals grapple with. There has been no local event of repute in the last decade and cash inflow into the sport is incredibly low.
It's all because the only route to success for most of these athletes is to step out of the shores of this country and try to make a name for themselves elsewhere.
Simpson lives and trains in Mauritius with the IAAF taking care of the bills. Gaisah earns his living in Holland while Aziz Zakari is based in the United States, even though he is often jetting from one European city to the other competing in the major events.
Chances are that those who try to cut it here will get nowhere given the total absence of good running tracks, modern gym facilities as well as the coaches required to make the sport thick.
Sandy hopes to change all that as time goes on even though he seems resigned to the fact for several years to come, Ghanaian athletes will have to go outside in order to be successful.
The athletics chief will launch a one-billion cedi fund intended to aid the development and enhancement of athletics facilities in Ghana. If it works, it could be a massive boost for the development of the sport in Ghana.
But there are also obstacles way beyond the control of the officials. For instance, the primary supply line of talent which has traditionally been the schools is running dry. They don't generate as much excitement as they did in the past and from where the likes of Zakari and Sandy emerged.
Then there is the huge problem of dealing with low cash input from government for athletics. The sport might be high on the pecking order behind football and boxing but the budgetary allocation for it is nowhere near what football for instance receives.
But the fund, officials hope will help to correct that and help the GAA to send the most promising talents outside Ghana for training in the best institutions abroad. The success of Gaisah and Simpson as well Zakari's rise to global prominence suggest that is the way forward.
If Sandy can come up with the one billion cedis fund, athletics would have found a badly needed lifeline. Otherwise, the success of Helsinki will turn out to be a nine day wonder. A bit like the story of Zakari in the warm ups and big events proper.