If you’re superstitious and you believe ’13’ is an unlucky number, then the Tokyo Paralympic Games may well vindicate you.
Making a 13th appearance at these Games, Kenya recorded its worst ever performance, concluding a campaign Tuesday that yielded just one bronze medal.
Some history to put it into perspective:
After medalling for his home nation of Great Britain at the 1968 Paralympic Games, John Britton migrated to Kenya, took up citizenship and became the first Kenyan to win a medal at these Games.
And, boy, what a way to launch a nation’s campaign!
He won Kenya’s only gold at the country’s ground-breaking Paralympic Games in Heidelberg, West Germany, shattering the world record in the pool in the process.
He grabbed the top podium place in the “Class Two” (basically for paraplegic athletes) 25 metres freestyle in 19.9 seconds.
Kenya had sent four competitors who featured in four disciplines – archery, snooker, athletics and swimming.
Britton died in 2004 somewhere in Florida, USA, where he was teaching, and since his trailblazing exploits, Kenya has won a total of 19 gold medals, 16 silver and 13 bronze.
On Tuesday morning, Kenya completed its worst ever outing since Britton’s maiden foray when Erick Kiptoo Sang finished sixth in the 1,500 metres T11 class (for visually impaired) at the National Stadium here.
This means Kenya leave these Games with just one medal – a bronze – won by Nancy Chelangat Koech in Monday’s 1,500 T11 final!
Only once has Kenya won just one medal, but perhaps not “just” because it was gold, from Britton’s 1972 swim.
Subsequent performances have been as follows:
1980 (Arnheim, Netherlands): one gold, two silver, no bronze;
1984 (Stoke Mandeville, Great Britain) 1-1-1;
1988 (Seoul, South Korea) 0-4-1;
1992 (Barcelona) 1-0-1;
1996 (Atlanta) 1-1-0;
2000 (Sydney) 1-1-2;
2004 (Athens) 3-1-3;
2008 (Beijing) 5-3-1;
2012 (London) 2-2-2;
2016 (Rio de Janeiro) 3-1-2;
2021 (Tokyo) 0-0-1.
There was already a hitch going into yesterday’s final race for Kenya when team officials here replaced Sang’s guide David Korir by bringing in Eric Kirui owing to an injury by Korir.
The inevitable move certainly affected Sang’s rhythm.
With two laps to go, Sang was a distant sixth with Brazil’s Yeltsin pulling off a gun-to-tape performance, opening up an unassailable, 40-metre gap with 600 metres to go and holding on to grab victory, and his second gold of these Games, in a world record three minutes, 57.60 seconds.
Sang wound up sixth in 4:21.53.
Sang then thanked the government for the support that saw the team in camp for over two months at the Utalii Hotel in Nairobi.
“I’d like to urge the government to keep organising such long residential training camps,” he said.
“It would also be good to arrive at these Games much earlier for acclimatisation.
“The heat and humidity here really affected us because we have been training in high altitude back home in Kenya,” he said.
“We should have been here at least one week before the competition to get used to the weather conditions.”
He also made a potentially game-changing proposal that para athletes be allowed to train with able-bodied athletes which will help the gain the pace and shape of the elites.
His guide Kirui appealed to the Kenya National Paralympic Committee to cast their net wider in selection to increase medal chances.
“Also a one or two-week camp at the competition venue is important for athletes to acclimatise – for instance, back home we train where the temperature is around 21 degrees (Celcius) and here we compete at 32 degrees,” he added.
Kirui proposed a broad selection system to identify talented athletes nationally.
“There are many physically and visually challenged but talented athletes out there in the villages.
“They just need to be brought together and taken through trials to ensure that there is a bigger representation and higher possibility pf winning medals. I’m sure we shall bounce back,” he said.
Sang ran a lone race as Kenya’s second entry, Wilson Bii (guided by Robert Tarus), was disqualified in the event’s heats on Monday for an infringement on a rule touching on eligibility of the tether (string that ties runner and guide together).
There will be a lot of soul-searching as Kenya’s contingent, that included Members of Parliament, launch the agonizingly long journey home with brilliant Chelangat’s bronze medal all to show for this two-week outing.
Certainly, a serious post-mortem must be done to prepare adequately for the next Paralympic Games in Paris in 2024.
For sure, the national government, through bereaved Sports Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed and Principal Secretary Joe Okudo, must be commended for making all efforts for the long camp at Utalii Hotel and ensuring the athletes’ and officials’ allowances were paid well in advance, a rarity in Kenyan missions to the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Instead, it’s the Kenya National Paralympic Committee that has many questions to answer for dropping the ball, somewhere, somehow, anyhow.
Something should be done, and must be done, and I’m confident – under the current ministry leadership – will be done.