•Lane violations, poor exchange of the baton and lacklustre speeds were common mistakes committed by athletes during the 1st leg of the AK Relay Series at Nyayo Stadium on Saturday
•Athletes interviewed attributed the mistakes to lack of proper coaching and poor communication among relay teams
•However, AK president Jack Tuwei and sprints coach Stephen Mwaniki were grateful that these mistakes appeared early enough so that they can be rectified
Considering Kenya's struggles in sprints and hurdles, it seems ironical that the country's first ever medal in athletics came from this race category.
Seraphino Antao's gold medal at the 100m and 200m at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Australia laid the foundation for Kenya's powerhouse status in athletics, which has been largely attributable to the exploits of its middle and long-distance races.
Since Antao's heroics, it has been majorly a case of disqualifications and dire performances in sprints and relays by the athletes who have represented the country at various times and meets.
If last Saturday's Athletics Kenya Relay Series is anything to go by, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to improve Kenya's fortunes in the sprints and hurdles as well as the relays.
The three-leg series seeks to identify, select and prepare talented athletes who will represent Kenya at the World Relay Championships in Selesia, Poland on May 1-2.
Lane violations, poor exchange of the baton and lacklustre speeds were a common sight during the first leg, which indicates that AK's work is cut out in as far as improving the standards of this race category is concerned.
During the 500m, 1000m and 1600m races, it was commonplace to see athletes running into each other's lanes much to the chagrin of the track judges who repeatedly had to admonish the culprits for this grave violation.
Under the sprints and relay rules of World Athletics, competitors must remain in their lanes at all times failure to which it results in disqualification.
This is with the exception of the 4x400m relay where only the first runner is required to remain in his or her lane. Subsequent athletes in the same relay team are permitted to overlap into other lanes.
Zablon Ekwam, who was competing in the men's 150m race, attributes the mistakes to the lack of proper training for the athletes affected.
“I think such athletes have not undergone proper coaching or do not have a coach at all. When they come to events like these they struggle to grasp the rules because they have not been training on the same,” Ekwam, who trains at Ndura Athletics Camp in Kitale, says.
He believes there is need for athletes to undergo refresher courses after a long period of sporting inactivity.
"It has been a while since we came to such a competitive environment and so many of us were a bit rusty. With consistent training I think such schoolboy mistakes will be minimised or erased," he says.
During the relays, the discomfort when handing over the batons was clear as day on the faces of various athletes.
If it was not handing over the baton belatedly, it was a case of a receiving athlete being too eager to take off without receiving the baton from a teammate.
Considering that the relay event was simply an exercise to dust off the 'cobwebs' as far as speed, endurance and technique is concerned, one wonders what might happen in an international competitive setting if the athletes cannot constrain their nervousness.
Olympics rules regarding relays stipulate that the exchange of the baton must be within an exchange zone — approximately 20m long —failure to which the culprits will be disqualified from the race.
Christine Ndanu, who was representing the Machakos Athletics Camp in the 4x400m mixed relay at the event, pinpoints poor communication as a reason for the poor exchange of batons among different teams.
"As for our camp, we have been training together for quite a while and that is why we did not encounter any challenges in exchange of the baton. However, for the teams that were struggling, I think they have not been training together for a while especially during this Covid period. It can be a bit problematic to compete successfully when there is poor chemistry within your team," she says.
Kenya fortunes in sprints, hurdles and relay events can be best described as bittersweet. Whereas the country has occasionally turned tables against their fabled competitors — a case in point, the 4x400m mixed relay bronze at the 2019 World Relay Championships in Yokohama — the country has suffered heartbreaks owing to disqualifications and DNFs (Did not finish).
In Yokohama, the Kenyan duo of Collins Kipruto and Eglay Nalyanya was disqualified in the 2x2x400m mixed relay after the latter stepped out of her lane to recover her balance.
This was after controlling much of the race to put themselves into a prime position for victory.
At the same time, the quartet of Eunice Kadogo, Millicent Ndoro, Joan Cherono and Fresha Mwangi did not finish their race in the 4x200m relay.
During the World Athletics U-18 Championship at Moi Stadium, Kasarani, David Saruni was disqualified for lane violation after he thrice stepped out of his lane in the 400m hurdles.
His disqualification was more painful considering Saruni had only moments earlier brought the home crowd to its feet by winning semi-final 3 of the race and recording a personal best of 52.69.
At the 2012 London Olympics, Kenya's journey to the finals of the 4x400m relay was cut short by disqualification after a collision between Vincent Mumo and South Africa's Ofentse Mogawane.
The Kenyan was held responsible for a lane violation by cutting across the South African during the race.
These unfortunate incidents — and many more — are giving coaches and AK officials sleepless nights as they ponder over the strategies required to remedy this recurring problem.
Blessing in disguise
AK president Jack Tuwei is, however, thankful that these mistakes have been unearthed early enough for the federation and athletes concerned to work on them in time for the relay trials slated for March 26-27 at the same venue.
"This is why we are here to identify such mistakes and rectify them early enough. Now that we have identified these challenges, the athletes will be taken through specialised training under the guidance of technical experts who will impart the technical skills," Tuwei said.
Apart from the technical aspects, AK's sprint coach Stephen Mwaniki believes much work needs to be done to improve on the time posted by the different athletes.
"I would like to urge our coaches to improve on time for our athletes so that we can rank highly and qualify even for the Olympics. Already, the top eight ranked countries at the 2019 World Championships in Doha have qualified and so we need to do the same," Mwaniki says.
Mwaniki believes the signs are promising for the country and performances will improve with specialised training for the athletes.
"Last time in Yokohama, it was not a bad show because we won a medal for the first time. But, we believe there is still room for improvement. In the 150m, we saw Mark Otieno (national 100m champion) run 15.5, which is a very good time. We expect him to improve on his time and considering he was part of the 4x200m relay team that came fourth in Yokohama, we believe the performance will be better," he says.
Part of AK's plans to better the country's performances in these races is a specialised training camp bringing together talented sprinters who will be fine-tuned.
Mwaniki says the camp will not only improve on the athletes' technical nuance but also strengthen the bond among them.
"Winning depends on individual and team spirit. Having athletes training separately may not foster this winning spirit. So this time, we will have this specialised training camp to bring the athletes together and let them know that they have a mission of representing the country and to move together in one direction," Mwaniki explains.
Practice makes perfect as the wisemen say; the only way to erase these mistakes is for the athletes to keep implementing the instructions of the coaches on the track rather than cower in fear of making mistakes.
The second and third leg of the relay series is on January 23 and February 6 respectively at Nyayo Stadium — an opportunity to evaluate whether the athletes are improving or not.
Hopefully, as Mwaniki and Tuwei say, these individual and collective errors will be nothing but history when stakeholders converge at the same venue to select the final team for the battle in Selesia.