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Nijel Amos dares to dream: breaking the world record

THABO MASALILA
The 2019 Diamond League meets in Monaco and Zurich were scenes of the most epic 800m races in recent history.

For Botswana – an overachiever in athletics – this was the setting for a daring attempt. Nijel Amos produced a personal best, smashing his Monaco meeting record of 1:42.14 of 2018, and setting the 2019 world leading time of 1:41.89.

Amos joins an illustrious group of men who have run under 1:42 on two occasions – David Rudisha and Wilson Kipketer, current and former world record holders. Only four men have run under 1:42 in the history of 800m, Lord Sebastian Coe the final piece of the quartet.

But the story behind the story is something else. An act of valour. Nigel Amos wanted to break the world record.

On these two occasions, both separated by a few weeks 25 year old Amos came close, taking athletics aficionados some 40 years back to 1979, where a 22-year-old middle-distance Sebastian Coe embarked on a world record breaking spree. On July 5, 1979, Coe took more than a second off Alberto Juantorena’s world 800m record with 1:42.33.

Twelve days later, he smashed John Walker’s mile record with 3:48.95. The jamboree was concluded by breaking Filbert Bayi’s 1, 500m mark in Zurich with 3:32.03.

The exploits of Amos date to the London Olympics of 2012. In the fastest 800m race of all time, seven of the eight finalists set personal bests. Eighth placed, Andrew Osagie’s 1:43.77 was good enough for gold in the 2008 Olympic final.

Rudisha, already a world record holder with 1:41.01 set two years ago, set the pace from the start with Abubaker Kaki of Sudan and Mohammed Aman of Ethiopia in close pursuit.

Heading down the back stretch, Rudisha upped the ante, leaving Kaki and Aman fighting for the minor medals.  Amos surged into second on the bend and fought gamely to reel in the Kenyan, but scored a historic silver. That would change his life forever.

The exploits of Amos – and subsequently of Isaac Makwala, Baboloki Thebe and Karabo Sibanda see Botswana punch well above her weight. Pioneering the world stage at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, leading the participants was a 24-year-old Robert Chideka, with a fine reputation in the 5, 000m race. Chideka’s national record of 14:47 held for three years before being broken by Wilson Theleso.

Remarkably, even at that early a stage, was significant strength in the middle distances. Other debutants of the widely boycotted Russia games were 400m runner Wilfred Kareng and the formidable duo of Langa Mudongo and Joseph Ramotshabi in the 800m.

Along with talents of Ishmael Nhladi of 1, 500m and George Mosweu whose trade was the 10, 000m none of the ground breakers made it past the preliminary stages of the competition. 

Johnson Mbangiwa is also amongst the many who ran for free. In those early days, so scarce were resources that athletes ceded jerseys to parent associations. Today, athletes earn a living for their exploits. Coupled with an overwhelming and old-fashioned passion for an individual code – football – the potential of the success in other sporting codes was a blind spot. Reuben Raj Rathedi’s exploits as a middle distance runner are not as celebrated as the accomplishments of his elder brother.

In 1986, Botswana Ambrose Walker Rathedi captained the Zebras to a first ever victory. The international friendly marked the memorable 20 year independence celebration dubbed TAICU, after the organising unit.

The historic National Stadium re-opening, an upgrade from the old three stands, witnessed TAFIC’s Cornelius Matoni Mudzingwa and BDF XI’s Shadrack Rio Maswabi’s penalty earn a deserved victory.

We are a country obsessed with football, which we are dismal at anyway, and somewhat lost the opportunity for instant glorification via athletics. Historic performances of our

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athletes suggests that with proper identification and training, Botswana could challenge and potentially beat the world’s best in middle and long distance. The emergence of a new name added to proving exactly that.

The international community imposed an anti-apartheid sports boycott on South Africa, ridding Matthews ‘Loop en Vaal’ Motshwarateu the chance to compete. Motshwarateu set a South African 5, 000m record in 1978. In 1980, he set a world 10km record of 27:59.3 in Purchase, New York.

When on a scholarship at the University of Texas, in El Paso, he won the 1981 NCAA Cross Country Championship beating 1980 Olympic medallist in the 5, 000m Suleiman Nyambui.

Sporting restrictions forced Motshwarateu’s return to South Africa in 1986. In 1988, his manager Paul Coetzer circumvented the sports boycott by arranging for his protégé to run under Botswana colours. On April 16, 1988 and in New Orleans, Motshwarateu dusted an invincible Mexican,  Arturo Barrios, unbeaten in two years in 10km race.

Overall sponsorship funding, access to superior coaching and specialised training has afforded Botswana opportunities to participate competitively on the international stage. The era of past has proven that merit alone is not enough. Taking into account GDP and population size, a low GDP with a high population will negatively affect athletic performance.

In the case of countries with similar GDPs, one with a high per capita income but a low population will tend to fare as well as a country with a low per capita income and a large population.

Neighbours Namibia only boast of Frankie Fredericks. Zimbabwe and Zambia do not have remarkable success comparable to the feats of our pool. South Africa even with its large population had only produced Mbulaeni Mulaudzi before the emergence of late bloomer, Akani Simbine and Wayde Van Niekerk.

South Africa’s embattled Caster Semenya and Mozambique’s Maria Mutola were the only female successes from neighbours. Amantle Montsho, our first ever international medallist, remains an inspirational path finder for other beauties like Christine Botlogetswe.

Effective coaching strategies combined with good old-fashioned hard work and persistence enhance psychological, physical and technical skills that are fundamental to success at the highest echelons of sport. Botswana’s success story is one that dares our gifted legion to dream.

And so on the 12 July, Harun Abda led a blistering first lap, seeing Amos clock a ridiculous 48:70 in the first lap. Rudisha’s world record saw a first lap of 49:20. Coe ran 50:6 in the first lap. Blitzing through the start was a risky move.  Amos floated around the track behind Abda.

As the pacer dropped out, Amos drew away from the rest of the field, drifting effortlessly. At 600m, Amos’ was a few tenths 1:15.15 was off Rudisha’s 1:14:30. Having coasted clear, a second lap of 53:19 saw Amos power to a 1:41.89, just short of his personal best of 2012.

When breaking the world record, Coe let rip through the final circuit in 51:80. Rudisha ran a staggering 51:70. In the daredevil attempt in Monaco, Amos imploded. When coming second in Zurich, the focus for many was on the missed opportunity to winning nearly P500, 000. But what was on display was a champion honing his skills.

The next task for Amos is the World Championships. A week is long enough for intercessors to pray; for soothsayers to speak to the stars and those in the mastery of concoctions of roots to spice up a winning formula Amos has all the talent to win gold in Doha. Thanks to the foresight of sporting authorities, an identification and scholarship programme is bearing fruit.

Here is to wishing all our participants success at the World Championships – no pressure!



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