Last May President Edgar Chagwa Lungu of Zambia and his wife Esther joined several hundred people gathering at Sadzu Road in the capital Lusaka.
The event was the annual Lafarge Lusaka Marathon.
For the past few years, hundreds of runners from throughout Zambia and other countries have come to the event for a variety of reasons: some are competitive athletes, but most are just interested in the experience.
“We came up with the idea of a road race in 2012 and partnered with Lafarge, a French cement company,” says Elias Mpondela, president of the country’s athletics federation.
The event incorporates a marathon, half-marathon, a 10km race and 5km health walk, all helping to raise money for several charities in Zambia, including the Chilanga Mother of Mercy Hospice.
The ‘phenomenal’ growth in races
The marathon has become a popular affair in Zambia since its inception seven years ago.
“When we started in 2012, there were barely 300 runners,” Mpondela says. “In May 2019, we had over 3000. Having President Lungu and the first lady participate in the event this year was a big boost.”
The rise in popularity of the marathon mirrors an upsurge in road races in the world in general and across Africa in particular.
“The number of races growing in Africa is quite phenomenal,” says Norrie Williamson, a road-running coach whose vast experience in the sport spans more than three decades. In addition to his coaching duties, Williamson is also a technical consultant for many races all over the world and in Africa.
“Races like Lafarge in Zambia have grown at a considerable rate to the point where other races are beginning to be organised. They are looking at putting on a couple of marathons. From the considerable size of Lusaka and the Zambian population, that’s large.”
Many of the events across the continent have IAAF certification, with a few of them big enough to earn a label, like the Okpekpe International Road Race in Nigeria. The silver label race takes place in the small town about five hours from the capital Abuja with a population of just over 3000. Yet the race has an attractive prize money pot of US $20,000, drawing top competitors and opening a window into the world of athletics for the locals.
“You have a situation where the locals can participate in the race against some of the best in the world,” according to Williamson.
An athlete finishing the Lusaka Marathon (organisers) © Copyright
In North Africa, Moroccans organise more than a dozen road races in a number of cities, among them the “Course Féminine” started by 1984 Olympic 400m hurdles gold medallist Nawal El Moutawakel.
“I started the event in order to showcase the spirit, power and solidarity of women participating in sport,” says Moutawakel, an IAAF Council Member. “I wanted to give them a day to be able to freely participate in sport together and this run was a perfect way to do that.
The event began as a 5km race with less than 2000 participants in 1993. By 2008, more than 30,000 women and girls between the ages of 15-75 took part in a 10km.
Run annually in Casablanca, it’s been nicknamed the “Run for Fun” where women can run or just jog. Participants come from Morocco but it also attracts top talent from Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia in Africa along with runners from European countries and the USA. The race has evolved into one of the biggest for girls and women in Africa and the Arab and Muslim world.
“The race is an example that women can make their own decisions regarding healthy lifestyles and that there is a community of women out there who aren’t afraid to make that decision. I think it gives girls and women everywhere courage to stand up and speak up,” says Moutawakel.
Races have sprung up all over the continent - even in countries with no history of long distance such as Gabon, Nigeria and Ghana.
In Cote D’Ivoire, the 2018 Abidjan marathon was able to draw 15,000 runners in only its fourth edition with a prize money purse of just 2 million West African francs, or about $US 3300. Runners came from 15 countries.
For the fifth edition, organisers expect to have about 20,000 runners for the marathon that is run along the banks of the Ebrie Lagoon. They have also set aside 10 million francs ($US 17,000) in prize money.
Of the thousands of races taking place all over the continent each year, South Africa is among the countries with the most races and the best organisation, according to Williamson.
“It is most structured in South Africa. We had something like 1400 races in the country in 2017 and 2018. A large percentage of those are marathon races.”
The two biggest road events in South Africa are ultras; the Comrades, run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, which was capped at 25,000 runners in 2019, and the Two Oceans Marathon that takes place in Cape Town.
Competitive athletes seek out these road races, especially those with significant prize money, but the biggest growth has been with recreational runners like 51-year-old Kafula Mwiche and his wife in Zambia.
“I have been running the (Lafarge) marathon for the past four years, ever since I became a long-distance runner,” says Mwiche. “I enjoy the solitude and the health benefits. I run with my wife so it gives us quality time as we are both busy professionals.”
Start of the Abidjan Marathon (Organisers) © Copyright
Mwiche belongs to a running club whose members enter road races in Africa and beyond. In addition to the Lafarge Lusaka Half Marathon, other races he has run in include the Cape Town Marathon, the Two Oceans and Comrades ultras in South Africa.
The 51-year-old is part of a growing group that has helped power the rise of road races in Africa.
“It’s a bubble growth towards the back of the field,” explains coach Williamson. “People will go and do an event maybe once or twice and then go and look for another event to do, another challenge. So we are seeing this growth within the recreational, health and social side of the sport as opposed to the competitive side of the sport, and it is going to carry on.
“What they ultimately get out of it is the sense of achieving something and that tends to be something that they can then use in other aspects of their lives.”
Mwiche, who has completed all the races he’s ever been in, confirms the coach’s take on the recreational runner’s benefits.
“It is a priceless experience second to none. The preparation and execution teaches you discipline, which is applicable in all areas of life. It teaches one to focus and attain set goals.”
Factor in elite runners
Africans have long dominated marathons, since Abebe Bikila’s barefooted run to gold in the 1960 Olympic games in Rome. Many others followed in his footsteps, conquering not only the Olympics but other major road races all over the world.
These days it is runners like Kenyans Eliud Kipchoge and Bridget Kosgei making headlines. Africa’s growing interest in mass races may have something to do with these elite athletes achieving wonderful things on a global scale. The thousands of Kenyans in Eliud Kipchoge’s hometown of Eldoret who thronged the streets on 12 October to watch him run 42km in under two hours is a pointer in that direction. Africans all over the world identified with his achievement on social media.
They did the same when Kosgei broke the women’s world record at the Chicago Marathon run the next day. She clocked 2:14:04, shaving 3 minutes and 14 seconds off the previous record that had stood for 16 years.
The success of these athletes is major news all over the world and often inspires other athletes from similar backgrounds to try to do the same. They will seek out these races on the continent and do their best to win them.
Runners in the Abidjan Marathon (Organisers) © Copyright
“In Kenya and Ethiopia and other major athletics and running countries…people are using the sport to get out of circumstances to use their talent to improve their life and their lifestyles,” says Williamson.
Ambassadors for athletics
Road races are now acting as ambassadors for athletics in Africa, especially in places where the sport is struggling. This has been the case in Zambia with the organisers of the Lafarge Lusaka Marathon crediting the race with more visibility for the Zambian federation and its other competitions.
“It has helped us to become more creative, to raise money and not to rely entirely on the government and other donors for support,” says Mpondela, who has great ambitions for the race.
“We want to make it big, like the London Marathon and have top-notch runners come to compete in it.”
A similar situation is unfolding in Nigeria, where the Okpekpe 10km race is giving the locals a front row seat to the Diamond League. “They can actually watch the Shanghai Diamond League after the race. So you are getting a small village of maybe 3000 people being exposed to athletics. It is a mind-blowing concept of development,” says Williamson.
Meanwhile, races are continuing to sprout all over the continent and it is a trend Williamson thinks is not about to stop anytime soon.
“The sport will continue to grow. It is very exciting and a long way from where we were 10 to 20 years ago.”
Helen Ngoh for World Athletics
Eliud Kipchoge and Dalilah Muhammad have been named the male and female World Athletes of the Year at the World Athletics Awards 2019, held at the Grimaldi Forum in Monaco on Saturday (23).
Kipchoge, the winner of the award last year, added to his phenomenal marathon CV in 2019. In April he captured his fourth victory at the London Marathon with a 2:02:37 course record, the third fastest performance of all time. The 35-year-old Kenyan followed up in October by blasting through the distance's two-hour barrier with a 1:59:40.2 performance at the Ineos159 Challenge in Vienna.
Muhammad, 29, broke the world record in the 400m hurdles twice this year, first with a 52.20 performance at the US Championships in July to eclipse a mark which had stood since 2003. Muhammad broke it again at the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019, clocking 52.16 in one of the championships' most eagerly-awaited finals to claim the world title for the first time. Muhammad also won world gold in the 4x400m relay and won five of her seven races.
Male Rising Star - Selemon Barega
Barega, 19, was the silver medallist in the 5000m at the World Championships, and finished fifth in the senior race at the World Cross Country Championships Aarhus 2019. The Ethiopian also produced world U20 leads at both the 5000m and 10,000m with 12:53.04 and 26:49.46, respectively.
Female Rising Star - Yaroslava Mahuchikh
Mahuchikh, the 2017 world U18 champion, continued her ascension into the high jump elite at the World Championships where she twice broke the world U20 record, first with a leap of 2.02m and again with a clearance of 2.04m to secure the silver medal. The 18-year-old also won the European U20 title.
Coaching Achievement - Brother Colm O'Connell
During a coaching career that has spanned more than four decades, O'Connell, an Irish missionary who has lived in Iten, Kenya, since 1976, has coached 25 world champions and four Olympic gold medallists, including Wilson Kipketer and David Rudisha, the World Athletes of the Year in 1997 and 2010, respectively. Kipketer presented him with his award.
Fair Play Award - Braima Suncar Dabo
Dabo, a distance runner from Guinea-Bissau, made headlines around the world after he helped fellow runner, Jonathan Busby of Aruba, to the finish line during their opening round heat of the 5000m at the World Championships. Busby was near collapse with about 200 metres left in the race, when Dabo stopped to help his distressed fellow competitor.
Woman of the Year - Derartu Tulu
The Ethiopian distance running legend who won Olympic 10,000m titles in 1992 and 2000, Tulu has served as acting president of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation since November 2018. She is also a Council member of the African Athletics Confederation and vice president of the East Africa Athletics Region.
President Hamad Kalkaba Malboum is currently staying in Dakar (Senegal), which hosts the headquarters of the Confederation of African Athletics. This visit is an opportunity for the CAA President to meet with the Chief Executive Officer Lamine FATY to discuss the management of African athletics. Therefore, the results of the 2019 season and perspectives for 2020 will be evoked during the meeting.
For the past year and a half, the Confederation of African Athletics has owned and operated seven centres to train athletes, coaches and officials. These institutions, known as African Athletics Development centres, are scattered around the continent and are born of a desire to breed African talent on home soil.
“There was a necessity to train African athletes at home,” says CAA President Hamad Kalkaba Malboum.
“We told ourselves that instead of our athletes going abroad to train, we could instead find centres on the continent and orient these athletes towards such institutions.”
With this desire came several years of planning.
“The African Area Development Centres are the result of CAA's 10-year development strategy,” says Aziz Daouda, the technical and development director of the CAA. “They are the pillars of the development action of the confederation.”
The centres in existence are reconversions of former high performance training centres and regional development centres owned by World Athletics in Africa. Previously, specific institutions trained either athletes or officials. Now, the line is disappearing with the redefined mission of the centres being “the training of coaches and officials as well as the training of athletes,” Daouda says.
CAA President Hamad Kalkaba Malboum (c) at the African Athletics Development Centre in Cairo (CAA) © Copyright
The AADCs came to fill a void in the grooming of athletes in Africa.
“There are two ways in the world to prepare athletes,” Daouda says. “There is the American system based on the universities which have big means and the ability to train athletes at the highest level and there is the European system based on clubs which also have the capacity to train athletes of very high level.
“In Africa there is neither one nor the other and that is thus how the idea of a third way was born - that of the centres, which was born in Morocco in the 1980s with the results that we know.”
These centres had existed for years, to train the continent’s athletes as they found themselves at a disadvantage without a system specifically tailored for the development of their talent. Meanwhile, the last few years saw World Athletics pursue a policy of decentralisation, under the guidance of President Sebastian Coe. In response to World Athletics' decentralisation drive, the CAA revisited the concept of HPTCs and RDCs and adapted them to African realities.
According to Daouda, “the centres are there to allow the selected athletes to benefit from an adequate infrastructure, a high level of supervision and a regular medical follow-up.”
A centre for every region
The AADCs serve various regions and particular languages.
The Port Harcourt centre in Nigeria specializes in middle & long distance running, hurdles, jumps and throws. It is located at the Sports Institute of the University of Port Harcourt with corresponding facilities for these sports. There are also indoor training facilities and a well-equipped strength and conditioning gymnasium.
Senegal hosts the Dakar centre, which is the result of a fusion of the previous regional development centre and high performance training centre. It serves 25 federations including those in French-speaking Africa as well as Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Principe, and Guinea Bissau.
Training session at the African Athletics Development Centre in Cairo (CAA) © Copyright
The centre trains coaches, technical officials and executives as well as high-level athletes. Located at the Leopold Sedar Senghor stadium, it boasts a synthetic track, facilities for jumping and throwing plus a weight room.
The Cairo centre in Egypt serves 18 Arabic-speaking countries in both Africa and Asia, training coaches and officials as well as athletes in the throwing events. There are two 400m synthetic tracks in the stadium and a weight room.
In Nairobi, athletes from English-speaking African countries are served at a centre headquartered at the Moi International Stadium in Kasarani.
Athletes with ambitions in combined events can train at the AADC in Mauritius. There are other centres in Lome in Togo and Lusaka in Zambia. An eighth centre for Portuguese Africa is in gestation and could be located either in Cape Verde or Mozambique.
Success in spite of difficulties
Some of the biggest names in African athletics have come from the AADCs, both in their new form and from when they were owned by World Athletics. From the defunct RDCs and HPTCs came 2000 world 400m champion Amy Mbaké Thiam of Senegal, and the reigning African 100m and 200m champion Marie-Josée Ta Lou.
“One of the great hopes of the world in sprint today is Gina Bass who trains in the centre in Dakar,” says Daouda. “In Rabat during the African Games and in Doha at the World Championships we achieved extraordinary results.”
Athletes from the AADCs won 20 medals at the 2019 African Games – nine gold, six silver and four bronze.
However, these centres have had to overcome a number of difficulties to produce those results. Some of the biggest challenges faced by the AADCs are financial in nature.
“The greatest difficulty that our centres face today is certainly the extent of the means at their disposal,” says Daouda. He said that one way they plan to fight against that is to reduce the cost of training.
“In order to make them even more efficient, it is necessary to increase the number of athletes who train for more efficiency but also to achieve economies of scale on the operation.
“For this reason, for example, we have launched experimental training units in some centres. This is a system where athletes are not internal to the centre but where they benefit from supervision, infrastructure and help to allow them a better diet.
“It works pretty well. These units have been established in Dakar, Cairo, Mauritius and Nairobi. They will be extended to other centres and regions in the near future.”
CAA officials plan to keep pushing for better training on the continent for its top talent.
“The goal of everything we are doing now is to give African athletes the satisfaction of receiving training in Africa,” says Kalkaba, “to go on and win titles out of the continent.”
Helen Ngoh for World Athletics
Issues related to the organization of the next Senior Africa Athletics Championships, scheduled for June 24-28 in Algiers, were the focus of a meeting held on Tuesday, November 12th in Zeralda, between officials of the Confederation of African Athletics (CAA) and those of the Algerian Athletics Federation (FAA).
The CAA was represented by its CEO, Mr. Lamine FATY, and its technical director, Mr. Aziz Daouda, while the FAA was represented by its president, Mr. Abdel hakim Dib, its General Secretary Mr. Abderahmane Belaid, its treasurer Mr. Rabah Deradji, Mr. Abdelkrim Sadou, Mr. Amine Djouhri and its communication officer Mr Mohamed Zemmour.
The meeting was opened by the president of the FAA, the speech was given to Mr. FATY who after a brief return on the program of the CAA delegation since its arrival in Algeria has drawn up a roadmap to be materialized to ensure a good organization of these continental event.
One by one, the participants, each in his "field ", tried to define the actions to be carried out in time to avoid being under pressure at the last moment.
For this purpose, deadlines were set for each action and were set in order to be able to work normally and ensure everyone, athletes and officials good conditions of competition and work and ensure a beautiful show to spectators.
In this sense, participants reviewed several points relevant to the preparation of the competition including the program of events, accommodation and catering sites, transport of athletes, officials and journalists, accreditation, protocol, flagging the city, communication tools such as the logo and posters, anti-doping control and other miscellanies such as visas and other testing match before the competition as well as the upgrading of officials were tackled at this meeting.
At the end of this work session, both parties declared themselves "very satisfied" with the job they did to deliver a competition of very high quality.
The CAA Director thanked the FAA members for their efforts, especially their commitment to meet the challenge and deliver quality competition on all levels.
The CAA delegation will come back next March to Algiers to assess the progress of the preparations for the African championships, which will record a strong participation.
During this stay, the CAA delegation visited the family of the late Rezki Azaoun, former Secretary General of the FAA, to present their condolences.