Kenya is a global powerhouse in athletics famous for producing world beaters who have won several medals and broken dozens of records.
However, when one reels off the names, past and present, – Eliud Kipchoge, Paul Tergat, Timothy Cheruiyot, Catherine Ndereba, Brigid Kosgei, Hellen Obiri, and so on – one cannot help but notice that the overwhelming majority of them are middle and long distance runners.
A few exceptions in other disciplines stick out, like former World champion and Olympic silver medalist Julius Yego, nicknamed “Mr. YouTube” because he learned how to throw by watching YouTube videos of javelin athletes.
Yego, who is also the African and Commonwealth record holder for the event, was the first Kenyan to win a World Championships gold medal in a field event.
One discipline, however, where the country has endured a barren run is sprinting. Over the years, the country’s sprinters have lacked high profile competitions resulting in a drop of standards among current Kenyan sprinters.
This year, though, could very well be the one where all that changes. On Thursday, Ferdinand Omanyala, 24, and Mark Otieno, 28, captured national attention after they both qualified for the 100m event at the Tokyo Olympics.
National record holder Omanyala clocked a time of 10.02s while former national 100m champion Otieno also qualified in 10.05s during the national trials at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi.
It will be the first time since 1996 that the East African country, affectionately named the “Home of Champions” will be sending athletes to the world’s biggest sporting event to compete in the discipline.
Donald Onchiri was the last Kenyan to compete at the Olympics over the distance in the Atlanta Games. He, however, failed to progress further than the first heat.
Omanyala was delighted to have made the cut to represent his nation, especially doing it on home soil.
“We went to Nigeria and qualified but it never felt the way it does now. I wanted to qualify in my country and I have given the fans at home a good show,” Omanyala told CGTN.
As for Otieno, it is the culmination of years of hard work and determination to achieve one of the greatest highlights in an athlete’s career.
“Ï am so overwhelmed because this is a dream come true and I have been looking forward to qualify for the Olympics,” Otieno said.
Both men are raring to compete and said they will not be overawed by their more illustrious opponents from Africa and the world when they take to the track.
Athletes from West and South Africa have traditionally produced the continent’s best sprinters and represented the continent well in the process.
The legendary Frank Fredricks, who hails from Namibia, is widely regarded as the continent’s greatest male sprinter winning four Olympic silver medals and two world titles in an illustrious career.
“They are just people like us. So, going to the Olympics, I am not looking at anyone. I will not look to my left or right. I am going for the time and the medal,” Omanyala said.
They hope to emulate the feat of Nicholas Bett, who stunned the world to win the 400m hurdles at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing becoming the first Kenyan to win a gold medal in a distance shorter than 800m.
“From now on, at least, we can focus on the Olympics and, hopefully, God-willing, we will make it to the finals and win a medal for Kenya,” Otieno said.
The confidence and optimism that the duo exhibits not only comes from their abilities but also the fact that they will have a familiar face to encourage each other.
“I am happy that I have another athlete (Omanyala) to push each other so that one of us can qualify and, so far so good, both of us did it,” Otieno noted.
“I am grateful because he (Otieno) has qualified and I qualified so, at least, we are two. Two (Kenyan) sprinters going to Tokyo is a very good thing!” Omanyala said.
Otieno, who is also eyeing qualification for the 200m, hopes this breakthrough, after years of waiting, will signal the start of a sustainable interest in sprint races locally.
“It is history in the making. We have been known for long-distance (running). At least, we are being counted in the 100m, hopefully 200m now going all the way to 400m.”