Why it could be a defining year for triathlon in Africa

by Merryn Sherwood on 29 Jun, 2011 08:58 • Español

The name Sharif Kakooza might not mean much to triathlon fans yet, but the 18-year old has a story worth telling.

He started swimming, age 9, in a water hole near his home in Uganda. He then found a pool, where he cleaned the bathrooms, ran errands and helped with filtering, to pay his way to swim. From there, he started training with a team that used the pool, set national junior records and secured a berth on the Ugandan team for the prestigious FINA Swimming World Championships in 2009.

In Rome at those championships, he met one of his heroes, American Olympic medallist Dara Torres, who asked him about his future and suggested pursuing a scholarship overseas. Kakooza replied that while he loved swimming, he’d become obsessed with another sport: triathlon. Kakooza had competed in the local Lake Victoria triathlon in 2008 and 2009, after an American family he was then staying with said he should give it a go. Even though the water hazards in the lake included hippos, and despite getting lost on the bike course the first year, he was hooked.

July 3, 2011 Maputo ATU African Championships in Mozambique.
The African national titles.
September 3 to 18, 10th All Africa Games Maputo 2011.
Triathlon makes its All Africa Games debut.
October 9 - 10, Mombasa ITU Triathlon African Cup
October 15, Larache ITU Triathlon African Cup
November 11, Agadir ITU Triathlon African Cup
November 19, Troutbeck ITU Triathlon African Cup
November 27, Pretoria-Tshwane ITU Triathlon African Cup
December 17, Mauritius ITU Triathlon African Cup

A few months after returning from Rome a package from Torres arrived, including a triathlon magazine that mentioned an event in Miami. Kakooza emailed the race organiser, who offered him a free spot, a homestay and even a bike to race with. He’s been in Florida since 2010, competing in age-group races and going to school. Soon he’ll have the support of the ITU’s development programme and according the Director of ITU Development, Libby Burrell, Kakooza is hopefully just the start of a new wave of triathletes out of Africa.

“There is a huge amount of talent, lots of potential, but there are just too many issues that the athletes have to deal with on a daily basis,” Burrell said. “It’s an uncut diamond, Africa, there is a lot more talent in Africa, we have to work that area a whole lot harder.”

But there is evidence to suggest that this year could be a defining one for triathlon in Africa. It all starts this weekend, at the 2011 Maputo ATU Triathlon African Championships in Mozambique, there will be athletes across the elite, under23 and junior men’s and women’s, from nations like South Africa, Mauritius, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Egypt.

Some are already stars on the ITU circuit, like 4-time African champion and Olympian Kate Roberts (RSA), who became the first athlete from Africa to gain entry into the ITU Gold Group this year. Her South African teammate Hendrik De Villiers became the first African triathlete to ever win an ITU World Cup in 2007, at home in South Africa. Namibia’s Abrahm Louw finished fifth in the inaugural 2010 Singapore Youth Olympic Games men’s triathlon and will compete in next week’s Edmonton ITU World Cup, along with Christopher Felgate (ZIM) as part of Team ITU. Others to watch are Richard Murray (RSA), Wikus Weber (RSA), Matthieu Mamet (MRI) and basically, any athlete from Egypt.

“I think there is a huge amount of talent in Egypt, they could be the powerhouse of triathlon,” Burrell says. In the future, she identifies Botswana as another potentially strong area.

This year though, the African titles are the prelude to something bigger - as the test event for the 10th All Africa Games Maputo in September. The event is Africa’s biggest when it comes to sport and triathlon is making its debut in 2011. Burrell believes this is where the next stage of development should be centered. And she is an expert, as a South African - most of her coaching career has been based in Africa.

“At this stage I think if in the next four years if there isn’t a major event then yes it will affect triathlon. But I think what we need is to make sure we have a continental cup in the four corners of Africa, or three thirds of Africa and put enough emphasis on that. I think that is really important,” Burrell said.

The All Africa Games is a major multi-sport event held every four years. It is officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee as a major continental multi-sport event. The first Games were in 1965 in Brazzaville, Congo and Egypt has the most medals in games history, ahead of Nigeria and South Africa. The 2011 edition includes 20 different sports, with triathlon making its debut.

“For about nine years, I ran a development programme, taking triathlon to townships. I had this little caravan rigged up with bikes and my students at the university, it was part of their internship that they had to do, was to help me run a triathlon and duathlon programme. It was really hard in the beginning to get it going, but it came be an establishment at the end. You just have to stick with it,” said Burrell.  “Whatever you start in a poverty stricken area, you have to maintain it, you have to go in realistically, small, and stick with it. Bringing continental cups and helping to raise the quality of their national championships – I would start there, national championships.”

Roberts, who is aiming for her fifth African championship this weekend, believes that developing athletes locally is key, and a little self-belief.

“I think it starts with talent ID, identifying talented athletes who can swim and run and developing bike skills later on, if you can get a good swim/runner combination, identify that talent, start setting them up with the right coaching – slowly integrate them into races at the level of capability,” Roberts said. “We have so much talent in our country – it’s scary actually – but it’s frustrating because we don’t the right coaching, we don’t have the right mentality – we kind of think we don’t belong at the top level of racing. It’s definitely a stereotype that athletes in Africa just think that they can’t compete with the world’s best and it’s really a mental thing we have to start believing in ourselves more and realise that we can race with the best athletes in the world and we are just as good as them if not better, we just have to believe in ourselves.”

Burrell hopes that more athletes in Africa can dream big, and possibly achieve it, like Kakooza. While Kakooza will not race in Maputo this weekend, he will be racing at the All Africa Games.

“It’s just a kid with a dream he’s got and he’s done it all on his own…he was very excited the other day, he received a certificate the other day from USA triathlon to say he’s one of the top 100 triathletes in the Florida area, he was just so excited, he’s really in this…,” Burrell said. “Our dream is 2016 Olympics.”

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