In times past, countries from the southern part of the African continent were not regarded as good producers of the world’s best runners, but recently, Botswana, which was once considered a minnow in Africa and the world athletics stage, is proving that innate talent can be found in any part of the world irrespective of the geographical location.
Take for instance the emergence of Nijel Amos who came into global recognition after winning the Bronze medal at the 2011 Commonwealth Youth Games which was held at the Isle of Man. A breakout 2012 season as an 18yr old saw him become champion at the 2012 World Junior Athletics Championships in Spain, finishing in a new Championship Record (CR) of 1:43.79s.
Few months later at the London 2012 Summer Olympics, Amos won a Silver medal, which turned out to be Botswana’s FIRST EVER Olympic medal! His time of 1:41.73s established a new World Junior Record behind the new World Record (WR) set by Kenya’s David Rudisha and is tied as the third fastest individual ever. This historic achievement has given more recognition to Botswana’s athletics.
An outstanding 2014 season saw him continue his rivalry with Rudisha. He set a World Lead of 1:42.45s at the Herculis Diamond League meeting, before winning the Commonwealth Games GOLD medal in 1:45.18s, taking the shine from the Kenyan in both races, thereby becoming the only athlete to have defeated the former world champion on several occasions.
He became the African champion in Morocco, then capped off his outstanding season with yet another GOLD medal at the IAAF Continental Cup, leading an African 1-2 to give the host continent maximum points. This means he has made it 3/3 wins in major competitions this year, with a consummate win against top-class athletes. His efforts earned him a a nomination for the IAAF Athlete of the Year.
Amos hasn’t been the only standout athlete for Botswana this season; Isaac Makwala after years of consistent medal winnings for his country continentally, made sure Botswana had their best outing at the 2014 African Athletics Championship in Morocco.
Makwala approached the championships as favourite to defend his crown after setting an African Record (AR) of 44.01s (the third fastest time in 2014) in the 400m at the 35th Resisprint International Athletics Meeting earlier in the year. He went on to post a scorching NR of 19.96s in superlative style less than two hours later.
Nigeria with her abundance of talent is yet to produce a sub 20s runner since Francis Obikwelu did it at the 1999 World Championships in Spain. The closest in recent times was Divine Oduduru’s wind-assisted run of 20.25s at the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships in Oregon.
It was not surprising that he successfully defended his title in spite of the threat posed by South African record holder and Commonwealth Games silver medallist, Wayde Van Niekerk, smashing the CR in the process with a winning time of 44.23s, before taking silver in the 200m behind surprise winner Cote d’Ivoire’s Hua Wilfried Koffi in 20.51s.
It should be noted that the last time a Nigerian won the African 400m title was Christian Chukwu’s feat in 1996, while Athens 2004 Bronze medallist, Godday James became the last Nigerian to run under 45s, performing the feat first in 2006 in 44.99s, and then lowering his time to a brilliant 44.90s two years later at the Abuja Grand Prix.
Not done with winning titles, Makwala anchored his country’s 4x400m team which comprised of Amos, Pako Seribe and Leaname Maotoanong to its first ever continental GOLD in the relay with a NR of 3.01.89s, dethroning Nigeria in the process as the quartet comprising of Amaechi Morton, Miles Ukaoma, Noah Akwu and Robert Simmons followed in second place with 3.03.09s. He ended the championship as the only individual with three medals (2 GOLD, 1 silver).
At the IAAF Continental Cup which followed a month later, Makwala won Silver for Team Africa behind Diamond League winner, Lashawn Merritt in 44.84s. He then capped of his season with a spectacular run in the 4x400m as his second leg run turned out to be the defining moment of the race, taking over the lead from the Americas while teammates Saviour Kombe and Van Niekerk consolidated on his performance to give Africa a befitting GOLD medal with a PB of 3:00.02s.
Makwala’s country man Kabelo Kgosiemang (high jump) has been the most consistent athlete in the history of the African Championships. He successfully defended his title in Marrakech and therefore made history by becoming the first athlete in the history of the championship to win six titles in succession.
Kgosiemang and Makwala, both hold the African Championship Records in their various individual events, set within the last six years, while Nigeria with her abundance of talents and prominence in African athletics hasn’t produced any individual male championship record holder since Seun Ogunkoya ran 9.94s in the 100m in Dakar 1998.
Sadly, trailblazer and prominent 400m sprinter, Amantle Montsho who has won countless medals both continentally and internationally was banned by the IAAF for failing a drug test after her 4th place finish at the Commonwealth Games, thereby putting a sour taste to a seemingly outstanding 2014 season in Botswana’s athletics.
Montsho is a three-time back to back African champion, 2010 Commonwealth Games and IAAF Continental Cup winner (making her Botswana’s first GOLD medalist of the games), former world champion winning, in a Personal Best (PB) and NR of 49.56s in Daegu, South Korea, thereby becoming Botswana’s first ever world champion (a feat that has not been attained by any Nigerian sprinter till date).
The dominance of Botswana in middle distant races is bound to continue considering that they already have upcoming youth athletes in Thebo Baboloki (African youth 200m champion) and Karabo Sibanda, a silver medallist in the 400m at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games, who are already running as fast as our national champions.
Botswana’s progress in the sprints and middle distance races is a certification that their athletes could well be a force to reckon with on the global stage for years to come!