Not Quite The Olympics

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Footsteps, yarns and little fibs
A reflection about a sports day and past Olympic glory.

Submitted: August 04, 2016

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Submitted: August 04, 2016



Johnny Walker, the whiskey should never be confused with John Walker, the runner from New Zealand who won an Olympic gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Games and in 1975 broke the world mile record in Sweden.

We were there to watch him line up for the 1500metres during the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, which turned out to be an iconic race remembered to this day. Well, maybe not widely. The nation was expecting John to win, after all he was our hero, but a young Tanzanian, by the name of Filbert Bayi pipped him at the post!

As long as there are no drug cheats, many of us enjoy the spectacle that is the Olympic Games and just a few days before they begin in Rio de Janeiro, I was reflecting on the different experiences athletes have before they have a chance to qualify for the Games. Their country of origin is a big factor. I remembered Gifti at Makumira Primary School.

The school ground is flat, dry and hard with stubby yellow-dry grass that is never cut by mechanical means. The area is grazed off with occasional visits by herded cows or goats, but mainly the tropical sun dries out the grass to make it unpalatable to livestock.

To side-tracka bit - one of the teachers’ housegirl was bitten by a black snake on the school sports ground but hoping he did not have to spend money on treatment or at the clinic, he delayed, but watched her condition until well after dark to finally ask me to take her down to the clinic! Luckily she was fine, but it illustrates the wildness of the ground.

Schools like anywhere else in the world hold their sports days and the winners go to the district day, and winners there go on to the regional, and then onto the national event.  That’s the way all sports-people work their way to Olympic glory, only the more affluent countries have better facilities and have the opportunity to compete in events other than those few opportunities found in third world countries. During seven years in Tanzania, I never saw athletes training other than a few cyclists and long-distance runners who were obviously in the Tanzania team. Certainly at school level all success depended on natural ability.

Each year we went to watch the school’s event because we were part of the community and I had carried out environmental and tree planting work with the kids. Few other parents turned up to watch but the kids had their favourites and barracked loudly. Each student had to do at least one event and some were not athletes at all but nevertheless they were encouraged. Nobody was laughed at.

It so happened that the district school meet was at the Makumira ground and again we supported the event, and again we knew the visiting teachers and students because I worked with those schools too. Again few parents attended the day and only athletes with teacher support came from the other schools, so most of the barracking was for the local school because it was a day off for them.

It was a typical summer Makumira day, with bright sunshine, just standing was enough to bring out a sweat. We and the kids stood or sat in the full sun because there was no shade, some of the kids still wore their blue sweaters, while others covered their head with them. The patience and tolerance of the heat displayed by the kids always astounded me. Nobody carried water. The glare off that parched field was hard on the eyes, but we wore no sunglasses as a show of empathy, but I did wear my usual sweat stained cap. I think they all recognised my cap more than my face!

The teachers do their best to run the day’s events as professionally as possible and senior students had marked out the four hundred metre course with whitewashed rocks, and used whitewash to mark lanes for the one hundred metre course. We stood on the two hundred metre mark.

Each competitor wanted to win, for their school, but personally too, because the winners’ reward would be a trip to Arusha or further afield, kids don’t get that chance very often.

The starter used a handkerchief which he held high then dropped his arm at the same time as calling, ‘Go!’ Two senior students held taunt the twine that was the finish line. The impression I had was of a colourful fun day.

Except for Gifti!  None of the kids had running gear, just school uniforms and bare feet, some of the girls had long skirts. As a girl grew, the skirt became shorter. Likewise for the boys, shorts were always below the knee when new.

Anyway, Gifti lined up with the rest of the eleven-year-old girls for the eight hundred meters, her skirt was about knee length. The flag dropped and off raced Gifti, but it was a false start, the only one of the day! So the runners were called back. But Gifti out in front didn’t hear the call and she ran flat-tack around the four hundred meter track, only stopping at the start line when it was obvious to her the rest were not running. For her ‘indiscretion’, she received five strokes of the cane! She didn’t have to bend over, it was just whack, whack while she was standing – and she just stood there to take it. Presumably the reason was for holding up proceedings.

After the thrashing, the girls lined up again, and again out raced Gifti right from the start, twice round the track to the cheering of the crowd! We cheered too! Gifti won the race by at least an hundred metres!

Filbert Bayi would have been proud of her!



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