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West Africa: The long wait for World Athlete of the Year

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By Yemi Olus

A few days ago, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge and Caterine Ibarguen of Colombia were respectively named the Male and Female World Athletes of the Year at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) 2018 Awards held in Monaco.

•Kipchoge and Caterine

Kipchoge, who has been described as the greatest marathoner of the modern era, having won 11 of the 12 marathons he has entered, smashed the Marathon World Record (WR) while competing at the Berlin Marathon this year, erasing 78secs from the previous WR, making it the biggest single improvement on a men’s Marathon WR in 51 years.

Ibarguen on the other hand, dominated not only her specialist event, the Triple Jump, this year, but also extended her dominance to the women’s Long Jump event. The 34-year-old won both events at the Central American and?Caribbean Games, the IAAF Continental Cup and the IAAF Diamond League finals.

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The IAAF Male and Female Athlete of the Year Awards was introduced in 1988 to recognize outstanding athletes. The first set of winners were multi-talented sprinter and jumper Carl Lewis, and WR holder in the women’s 100m, Florence Griffith-Joyner.

The most dominant winner of the award is none other than Jamaican sprinting legend, Usain Bolt, who has carted the Male Athlete of the Year award a whopping six times – 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2016.

Now in its 30th year of existence, African athletes (male and female combined) have been recipients of the highly coveted award 13 times (including Kipchoge’s latest feat), with Ethiopia winning it six times, followed by Morocco (thrice), Kenya (twice), Algeria (once) and South Africa (once). 2003 was the only year since inception of the awards, that Africa produced both the Male and Female winners within the same year: Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, and South Africa’s Hestrie Cloete.

El Guerrouj belongs to the exclusive group of athletes that have clinched the award more than once. The Moroccan is the current WR holder in the 1500m, mile and outdoor 2000m events. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, he became the only man since Paavo Nurmi (at the 1924 Olympics in Paris) to win Gold in both the 1500m and 5000m at the same Olympics. He also went on to win four consecutive titles at the World Championships in 1997, 1999, 2001 and 2003!

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El Guerrouj is considered by many to be the greatest middle-distance runner of all time and won three consecutive IAAF Male Athlete of the Year awards (2001, 2002 and 2003). El Guerrouj and Yelena Isinbayeva (2004, 2005, 2008) rank next to Bolt in terms of the highest number of awards won.

Africa’s first recipient of the award was Algeria’s Noureddine Morceli (1994). Morceli won the 1500m at the Atlanta ‘96 Olympics and three consecutive Gold medals over that distance at the 1991, 1993 and 1995 World Championships in Athletics. He also set WRs in the 1500m, mile run and 3000m.

Four years later (1998), another African winner emerged in the person of the legendary Haile Gebrselassie who won Gold in the men’s 10,000m at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games. He also won four World Championships Gold, two Silvers and a Bronze medal, and four Gold medals at the World Indoor Championships amongst many other titles.

El Guerrouj won the award in 2001, 2002 and 2003, while former South African High Jumper Hestrie Cloete was named the IAAF Female Athlete of the Year in 2003. Cloete won the women’s High Jump at the 2001 and 2003 World Championships, and Silver at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. She also added two Commonwealth Games titles to her name in 1998 and 2002 respectively.

Kenenisa Bekele took over from where El Guerrouj stopped, winning the award in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Bekele remains the WR and Olympic record holder in both the 5000m and 10,000m. He won double Gold in the 5000m/10,000m at the 2008 Olympics, and at the 2009 World Championships, he became the first man to win both titles at the same championships. Bekele was unbeaten over the 10,000 m from his debut in 2003 until 2011.

In 2007, another Ethiopian, Meseret Defar claimed the IAAF Female Athlete of the Year award. Defar broke the WR in the 5000m in 2006 and 2007. She won Gold at the 2004 and 2012 Olympics. She also won Silver at the 2005 World Championships and Gold in 2007.

Three years later (2010), Kenya’s David Rudisha won the award. Rudisha is the current WR holder in the men’s 800m, 2012 and 2016 Olympic champion, and two-time World Champion (2011 and 2015). Rudisha is the first and only person to ever run under 1:41 in the event and holds the World best time in the 500m, and African Record in the 600m.

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In 2015, Ethiopia’s Genzebe Dibaba clinched the award of the Female Athlete of the Year. She is the current WR holder in the 1500m (both indoor and outdoor), the indoor 2000m, the indoor 3000m, the indoor 5000m, the indoor mile, and the indoor two mile. Dibaba holds the distinction of having the most WRs held simultaneously by any athlete in history, male or female. She won Gold in the 1500m at the 2015 World Championships, and Silver at the 2016 Olympics.

The following year, her compatriot Almaz Ayana became the World Female Athlete of the Year. Ayana broke the women’s 10,000m WR enroute winning Gold at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. She claimed another Gold medal the following year at the World Championships in London.

Africa has been blessed with gifted athletes who have over time, left their footprints in the sands of time with their great exploits. Taking a cursory look at the list of African winners, only West Africa is yet to produce an IAAF World Athlete of the Year. We do not need a soothsayer to tell us we’ve got our work cut out for us. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 30 years!

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