Sunday, June 16, 2024

The last man running

Robert Chideka was among the first Batswana to compete at the Olympics. Thirty years later, his passion for sport still remains strong.

Nineteen-eighty was the year Botswana lost its innocence.

First was the death of its founding president, and a month later seven athletes marched under the Botswana flag at the opening ceremony of the Olympics Games in Moscow. The United States led a boycott of the Games that included 64 other countries following Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.

Refusing to join the boycott brigade, President Quett (Ketumile) Masire made the cocky statement: “We will only not go to the Olympic when we have no team to send”. Thus, Botswana made its first Olympic appearance alongside Angola, Jordan, Laos, Mozambique and Seychelles at the Games that would be remembered for the largest boycott of an Olympics in history.

One of the seven was a 24-year-old 5 000m runner who was making his first visit abroad. Thirty years later, Robert Chideka still fondly recalls the kind hospitality of the hosts; especially the interpreters assigned the Botswana delegation.

With his ready smile, Chideka easily passes the test for the “nice guy” label ÔÇô the type that you won’t hesitate to walk to and ask for directions to the cathedral. As if determined by fate, of the Moscow delegation ÔÇô that also included Louis Josiah (100m and 200m), Wilfred Kareng (400m), Langa Mudongo (800m), Joseph Ramotshabi (800m), Ishmael Nhladi 1 500m; George Mosweu (10 000m); Goitsemang Timothy (coach), and the late Norman Mangoye (chief de mission) ÔÇô Chideka is the only one who still maintains the strongest ties to the sport, sitting in the executive committee of the Botswana National Olympic Committee (BNOC).

History has recorded that the Moscow outing was a baptism of fire for our Olympians. None went beyond the preliminary round. Despite the secret vow the team had made among themselves that there was no way makgowa could outrun them, the resolve crumbled like a clay doll when the men from Botswana, unused to large crowds at athletics meets, emerged from the tunnel to be confronted by stands filled to capacity.

“To line up against such luminaries inside a packed stadium was very scary and unsettling,” recalls Chideka. “But it was a worthwhile experience.”

Chideka came back with a national record of 14:47 minutes, which stood for three years before being broken by Wilson Theleso.

After Moscow, he ran for a few more years before retiring to take up coaching and administration, such that he went to the following Games, held four years later in Los Angeles, as a coach of the Botswana team. Once again, none of the Botswana athletes went beyond the preliminary round.

He also served a number of terms in the executive of the then Botswana Amateur Athletics Association (BAAA), as secretary general, and later vice chairperson.

Chideka belongs to a rare breed that can lay claim to have begun running before learning how to walk. Running was a way of life. When sent on errand, it was natural instinct to break into a sprint. Tending cattle in the pastures? You sure had to be a decent runner. At primary school, lessons were preceded by what was known as PE ÔÇô which mostly comprised of running. Another factor that fashioned a runner out of Chideka was that though he was born and schooled in Francistown, his home village was in Makobo, about 40km out of town. Every Friday after school, a group of students from the village would journey to Makobo ÔÇô on foot, of course. The return expedition would be on Sunday, in time to get ready for school.

So polished was he as a runner that in lower primary, he was included in the school’s intermediate team ÔÇô at the time his event being 800m. He graduated to 5 000m at secondary school.

It is this deep passion for the sport that has ensured that he never strays too far away. It was, therefore, fitting that when Glody Dube became the first Motswana to reach the finals of the Olympics at Sydney in 2000, Chideka was in town ÔÇô as chief de mission of the Botswana team. It had taken 20 years to realise a dream. An Olympic medal had always been a dream too far, but when Dube lined up for the finals and he was introduced, Chideka shed tears of joy. It was at the same Games that Tiyapo Maso led the marathon for 21km, only to run out of steam after hogging television time since the beginning of the race.

With government recognition and money steadily coming into sport, today is another world ÔÇô so markedly different from 30 years back when Botswana’s Olympians got an allowance of US$10, and were allowed to keep the competition attire, a first in both respects. Not even the biggest dreamer could imagine making a living out of sport.

“We had no material incentives to run,” says Chideka. “You got nothing from running; even the attire had to be surrendered to the Association after the competitions. Probably that is why many athletes retired very young. We just ran for the love of the sport. That’s what drove us. Another motivation was the opportunity to travel and see different countries.”

The work place was also hostile to people in sport. Managers saw them as freeloaders always on the lookout for the next opportunity to be away from work. Many companies required athletes on national duty to fill in their leave days. In this regard, Chideka counts himself lucky because Botswana Telecommunications Corporation (BTC), his employer throughout the years he was involved in sport, was always accommodative as his pursuit was seen within the organisation as national service.

Chideka looks at the current success of Botswana sportspersons across the spectrum ÔÇô football, athletics, and boxing ÔÇô and sees fruits from a tree planted way back that survived drought spells and rough winters.

“Even when we lost, we never gave up. We knew that our time at the podium would come. What kept our hope alive was that at every international competition, the times our athletes clocked improved,” he explains.

He talks of the change in attitude from the national leadership, something he terms critical for sport to develop.

The private sector is also coming to the party. Chideka says private companies’ involvement took long to happen because previously sport did not offer a return on a company’s investment.

“Now it’s a different story. We are winning, and every brand wants to associate with the best,” he says.

Being in the structures of the Olympic movement, Chideka knows than most people the danger that doping poses to sport. There are various reasons advanced for athletes falling into the temptation to take performance-enhancing drugs. The reasons range from greed to rake in more money from competitions and sponsorship deals to the pressure that athletes are under to set new records. Chideka makes the distinction that money per se is not the problem. The problem, he points out, is the greed that is inherent in some people.

“Athletes must strive to remain clean. The folly about doping is that eventually you will get caught and lose everything. No matter the amount of pressure to excel, athletes should not fall into the temptation to use drugs. They must work hard and depend on natural talent,” he says.
To guard drugs creeping into local sport, Chideka points out that the BNOC is introducing an anti-doping programme to teach athletes about the dangers of doping and how to avoid drugs. The programme will address athletes from a young age, and will reach out to schools.

“There are some common medicines, including some flu mixtures, which contain banned substances. Some athletes take these medicines innocently only for the banned substances to be detected when they are tested. That’s why they must be educated to scrutinize everything they take,” he says. “You can never over-emphasise the danger of drugs because ultimately they kill.”

Wise counsel from a man who has been there since the beginning ÔÇô that is if it all began in 1980.

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