•Athletics Kenya have reiterated the need to begin preparations for major events as soon as possible.
•This year was mostly profitable with a few unpleasant surprises along the way.
•Major events to watch out for include World Championship and Commonwealth Games.
For a year that began with a lot of uncertainty surrounding major international competitions, it is quite a relief to see that most global athletics events went on with minimal hitches.
The previous year was a harrowing and disturbingly quiet one for many athletes after the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation or postponement of many competitions, including the Africa Athletics Championships and the Tokyo Olympics.
With things seemingly back to normal, 2021 was a busy year for many athletes even though most of the local and international competitions were held behind closed doors.
As the year winds up, there is no time to rest for most as 2022 promises to be a busy calendar year as far as athletics is concerned.
Top on the agenda for many track and field specialists are the World Championships in Oregon, USA (July 15-24) and the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, UK (July 28-August 4).
Owing to their reputation as a long-distance powerhouse, Team Kenya are expected to be among countries on which the spotlight is shone at these games.
This is a reality not lost on the top brass at Riadha House, who admit preparations for the competitions must start in early to guarantee exceptional performance.
"Our athletes performed well in the different competitions last year. We are now embarking on preparations for next year's events and we know we will, once again, host the Kip Keino Classic before the World Championships in May," says Athletics Kenya director of youth development Barnaba Korir.
At the last edition in Doha two years ago, Kenya tightened their grip on their second-place finish on the medal table, achieved in 2017 in London.
Only the United States were better, courtesy of their 29 medals as opposed to 11 for Kenya.
With such a history, little wonder all eyes will be on Team Kenya to see if it will be business as usual in the homeland of American athletics.
Year of contrasts
Even as various stakeholders in the athletics fraternity continue laying the groundwork for the approaching year, they will be looking back at 2021 with mixed feelings.
All eyes were trailed on the Tokyo Olympics, which had been postponed from 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Amidst lingering concerns and questions over its viability, the road to the quadrennial event was jam-packed with athletes hoping to showcase their talents at the grandest stage.
The national trials in June at Moi Stadium, Kasarani threw up a few surprises as various favourites saw their Olympic dreams incinerate before their eyes.
Despite ruling the Diamond League series in the men's 1500m, world champion Timothy Cheruiyot had to temporarily bid bye to Tokyo after finishing third in the trials.
He was, however, given a reprieve when Kamal Etyang was barred from competing in Tokyo for failing to undergo three mandatory anti-doping tests, in and out of competition.
Also missing in action was then Olympic 3000m steeplechase champion Conseslus Kipruto as Benjamin Kigen, Abraham Kibiwott and Leonard Bett earned the right to fly Kenya's flag in the water-and-hurdles race.
Heading to Tokyo, expectations were sky-high that Kenya's source of medal haul would be the usual long-distance races.
However, a pleasant surprise emerged in the form of Ferdinand Omanyala who became the first Kenyan sprinter to qualify for the semi-finals of the men's 100m.
Even though his time of 10.00 was not enough to earn him a berth in the final, it was adequate to set a new national record and — most importantly — catapult the University of Nairobi student to worldwide acclaim.
As the curtains come down on 2021, Omanyala is now the African record holder — courtesy of the 9.77 clocked at Kip Keino Classic — and a national record holder —which he set on four different occasions.
Having begun the year as an also-ran, Omanyala admits he is still in dreamland.
"I never imagined the year would go so great as it did. It is amazing how God's time is the best and just when you think of giving up, he comes through for you. It has been a year of exceeded expectations," the Kitale-born says.
However, it was a rude shock in the men's 3000m steeplechase after Moroccan Soufiane El Bakkali's long legs aided his surge towards a first gold medal and the end of Kenya's 53-year reign over the race.
A bronze medal courtesy of African champion Kigen was mere consolation as Kibiwott, the only other Kenyan in the final, fell by the wayside.
Kenya's bid to win their first gold medal in the men's 10,000m since 1968 also remains a mere dream after Rodgers Kwemoi could only muster the country's highest finish in Tokyo, timing 27:50.06 in seventh.
The script was the same in the women's 10,000m where Kenya missed out on the medal places.
Regardless of the disappointment in these disciplines, AK president Jack Tuwei believes Team Kenya did the country proud considering they were the top African country on the medal standings.
"I think our athletes did extremely well apart from the steeplechase, which we were expecting to win. They came back with 10 medals, which was a very good return from Tokyo. I want to congratulate them on that," Tuwei says.
Indeed, there were bright moments from Tokyo as Kenya generally cemented themselves as the kings and queens of middle and long-distance athletics.
US-based Emmanuel Korir defrayed Kenyan nerves, which were on edge after a mini-medal drought, when he led a 1-2 finish in the men's 800m, alongside world silver medalist Ferguson Rotich.
With 100m to go, Korir engaged his head-bobbing sprint tactic to overcome the leading pack and earn Kenya's first gold medal at Tokyo.
For all her dominance in the women's 10,000m and 5000m, Sifan Hassan's long legs were useless to catch up against Faith Kipyegon in the last lap as the double Olympic champion added another 1500m gold medal to her burgeoning collection.
Hassan will have to wait longer for her revenge after Kipyegon once again walked away with the Diamond League trophy having trounced the Dutchwoman in Monaco and Zurich.
Quizzed on her secret weapon to defeat her seemingly unbeatable opponent, Kipyegon was quite modest.
"It is not anything complicated. Just to work hard in training and to stick to your tactics. I don't think there is any secret to it," the world 1500m silver medalist says.
In the marathon, Eliud Kipchoge and Peres Jepchirchir proved why Kenya are rulers of road races with a ruthless performance in the sweltering heat of Sapporo.
Jepchirchir, the world half marathon champion, would later clinch the New York Marathon in November to put the icing on the cake of what has been a profitable two years.
Under 20 heroes
Kenya also hosted the rescheduled World Under 20 Championships in August at Moi Stadium, Kasarani and were favourites to defend the title they won in 2018 in Tampere, Finland.
The youngsters did not disappoint as they topped the medal standings with 16 medals (eight gold, one silver and seven bronze).
One of the enduring highlights of the five-day competition was the sight of Amos Serem rousing the crowd as he blitzed towards the finish line in the men's 3000m steeplechase.
Coming only a month after the heartbreak in Tokyo, Serem's performance filled many with hope the country will soon reclaim its crown as the kings of the steeplechase.
In the men's 800m, Emmanuel Wanyonyi timed 1:43.76 to set a new championship record on his way to gold as his namesake, Heristone Wanyonyi, earned Kenya its first race walk gold in the men's 10km race walk.
Commenting on their performance, Tuwei believes the youngsters are key to extending the country's reputation as an athletics giant.
"It was the best performance we have ever witnessed by an Under 20 team. That is the team we are looking forward to for future championships... the World Championship, the Olympics, and the other major competitions," says Tuwei.
However, the immediate concern for AK is to prepare the youngsters adequately to defend the country's Under 20 title at the next edition of the competition in Cali, Colombia on August 2-7.
Korir says plans are already underfoot to ensure a strong Team Kenya and a third consecutive crown for the country.
“We want to defend the World Under 20 title for the third time now that the World Under 18 was scrapped. We have started the process to make sure that we have the chance to win a third title in a row," Korir says.
It is a crammed in-tray for all stakeholders including athletes, coaches and officials. With the new year on the horizon, they can ill-afford to overindulge in merrymaking during the festive season.
Apart from international track and field events, there will also be the AK Track and Field Weekend Meetings where, hopefully, more surprises will emerge in the form of resuscitated careers and upcoming talents.