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After Tokyo Olympic Golds, Uganda Guns To Become Africa's Next Sports Powerhouse

Success at the Tokyo Olympics inspired Uganda to step up its efforts to become a long-distance running powerhouse.

Photo of Ugandan athlete Agong Micheal streatching for his lunchtime run

Agong Micheal stretches in preparation for his lunchtime run at the National High Altitude Training Centre in Uganda's eastern highlands. He aims to become a world champion.

Edna Namara and Beatrice Lamwaka

KAPCHORWA, UGANDA — Agong Micheal wants to become a Ugandan Olympic champion so badly that he skips his lunch every day to go for a run.

“Lunchtime is a waste of time,” he says.

The 17-year-old says his dream is to qualify for the Ugandan athletics team, win medals and receive the prize money that the country gives winners. Agong is on an athletic scholarship at Gombe Secondary School in Mpigi, a town in central Uganda. But when schools closed due to the coronavirus, he sought work as a laborer at the National High Altitude Training Centre, a state-of-the-art training facility under construction in Kapchorwa, in the eastern highlands. Although the facility is not open yet, working there gives Agong a rare opportunity to try out the course.

“One day I will be as famous as [Joshua] Cheptegei and [Peruth] Chemutai,” he says, referring to two Ugandans who won gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics last year.

Success in the Tokyo Olympics has inspired Uganda to step up efforts to groom the next generation of elite athletes and make the east African country a powerhouse in the region. Uganda is a relative newcomer in long-distance running events, which its neighbors Kenya and Ethiopia have long dominated. But in Tokyo, Uganda outperformed Ethiopia in the number of gold, and equaled it in overall medals. The four medals (two gold, one silver and one bronze) were the most Uganda has ever won in a single Olympics. Officials now want to build on that success by providing aspiring athletes like Agong with world-class training facilities and special incentives. A similar center in Iten, Kenya, founded in 1999 by famed long-distance runner Lornah Kiplagat, has become a top destination for local and international athletes seeking to train in high altitude.

Uganda's success in athletics

Uganda’s success in athletics didn’t happen overnight, says Otucet Domenic, president of the Uganda Athletics Federation, the athletics governing body. In 2010, the federation drafted a strategic plan to support athletes who compete internationally.

Officials sought to provide athletes with funding to pay for equipment and to hire qualified international-class coaches. They hired Addy Ruiter, a world-renowned Dutch coach who specializes in endurance running, to train athletes at Kapchorwa.

Some of Uganda’s earliest success came in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India, when Moses Kipsiro won double gold in 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters, Otucet says. That year, Uganda won 28 international gold medals in races around the world. In 2011, in Maputo, Mozambique, Uganda won four more gold medals. The success caught the attention of President Yoweri Museveni.

“We explained to the president why it was important to invest in athletics, and he agreed,” Otucet says.

Financial measures

When Stephen Kiprotich won gold in the 2012 Olympics and in the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, Museveni got even more excited. He hosted athletes at his home in Rwakitura and gave 10 million Ugandan shillings ($2,822) to everyone who participated in Moscow, regardless of how they performed. Kiprotich received a brand-new sport utility vehicle and 200 million shillings (about $56,000).

Museveni instructed the government to put in place measures to support athletes financially, not just immediately after they won, but also in retirement. Athletes were told they would receive monthly payments of 5 million shillings ($1,409) for gold medals, 3 million shillings ($845) for silver and 1 million shillings ($282) for bronze won in international games like the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and World Championships. The government also promised athletes jobs with the armed forces, prisons and police, and altered recruitment procedures to benefit aspiring athletes.

All they cared about was welcoming the medal at the airport.

“We had to change the way we recruit to accommodate people with athletic talent,” says Frank Baine, spokesperson for the Uganda Prisons Service.Before the change, all armed forces, police and prison recruits needed to finish high school.

While that condition remains in place, Baine says candidates who show potential for sports talent get the education requirement waived.

Prior to 2010, athletes weren’t treated as superstars. When Dorcus Inzikuru went to Greece in 2005 to represent Uganda in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the government only provided athletes with flights, accommodations and daily allowances to cover expenses. So, when she brought home her first gold, she didn’t get any prize money, she says. She went back to her life of financial struggle. “Nobody in Uganda knew what I ate, or where I slept,” she says. “All they cared about was welcoming the medal at the airport.”

In 2012, Inzikuru began receiving the monthly payments Museveni had authorized two years earlier. But five years later, she says, the money stopped coming. “When people are excited, they make pledges and they celebrate you nicely, but it takes long for such pledges to be fulfilled,” she says.

Beatrice Aikol, the general secretary of the Uganda Athletics Federation, says regular payments to athletes stopped because the government wasn’t funding the program consistently. “Sometimes we ask for a given sum but receive only a quarter of it,” she says.

Peruth Chemutai celebrates winning a Gold Medal during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics\u200b

Peruth Chemutai celebrates winning the Gold Medal in the Women's 3000m Steepelchase heats during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Paul Kitagaki Jr./ZUMA

Olympic dreams

But the lack of funds hasn’t deterred young Ugandans from Olympic dreams. Okiror Dennis Okudach, Chemutai’s coach, says it’s still worthy for athletes to represent their country because of one promise the government has kept consistently.

“Athletes become permanent employees of police or prisons, so they are well taken care of for their entire lives,” he says.

Anyone can win if they focus and work hard.

Chemutai and Cheptegei have also been doing their part to make sure Uganda produces elite athletes. Chemutai has a network of children ages 7 to 13 she trains and motivates in various neighborhoods. “The first month after my win, I had a group of 1,000 children,” Chemutai says.

And Cheptegei launched the Joshua Cheptegei Development Foundation to help identify young talent. A race for children under 12 that he organized in December attracted more than 800 participants.

“We all have the potential to become champions because we train together,” Cheptegei says, as heavy beads of sweat roll down his face after a morning run through the meandering unpaved trails of Kapchorwa with about 30 other athletes. “Anyone can win if they focus and work hard.”

Agong, the 17-year-old student and construction worker, is not in the group because he’s not at that level yet. But he’s confident he will get there.

“I see myself aboard a plane through the clouds, going to pick up a gold medal for Uganda,” he says before heading out for a 9-kilometer (over 5-mile) lunchtime run in a pair of torn shoes.

He plans to work and save money for a new pair of shoes so he can go on longer runs.

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Chinese Students' "Absurd" Protest Against COVID Lockdowns: Public Crawling

While street demonstrations have spread in China to protest the strict Zero-COVID regulations, some Chinese university students have taken up public acts of crawling to show what extended harsh lockdowns are doing to their mental state.

​Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling on a soccer pitch

Screenshot of a video showing Chinese students crawling

Shuyue Chen

Since last Friday, the world has watched a wave of street protests have taken place across China as frustration against extended lockdowns reached a boiling point. But even before protesters took to the streets, Chinese university students had begun a public demonstration that challenges and shames the state's zero-COVID rules in a different way: public displays of crawling, as a kind of absurdist expression of their repressed anger under three years of strict pandemic control.

Xin’s heart was beating fast as her knees reached the ground. It was her first time joining the strange scene at the university sports field, so she put on her hat and face mask to cover her identity.

Kneeling down, with her forearms supporting her body from the ground, Xin started crawling with three other girls as a group, within a larger demonstration of other small groups. As they crawled on, she felt the sense of fear and embarrassment start to disappear. It was replaced by a liberating sense of joy, which had been absent in her life as a university student in lockdown for so long.

Yes, crawling in public has become a popular activity among Chinese university students recently. There have been posters and videos of "volunteer crawling" across universities in China. At first, it was for the sake of "fun." Xin, like many who participated, thought it was a "cult-like ritual" in the beginning, but she changed her mind. "You don't care about anything when crawling, not thinking about the reason why, what the consequences are. You just enjoy it."

The reality out there for Chinese university students has been grim. For Xin, her university started daily COVID-19 testing in November, and deliveries, including food, are banned. Apart from the school gate, all exits have been padlock sealed.

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