Veteran sprinter Aziz Zakari is a man who is known to speak his mind on issues that directly affect him without mincing words and he summed up his impressions of the rLG Ghana Grand Prix in very few words saying “I miss Kumasi already. It’s wonderful. It feels great. As an old athlete, I have travelled around the world and we have the crowd everywhere we go and this is the first time I really enjoyed it.”
Aziz’s sentiments were echoed over and over again by several of the athletes who took part in the historic event on 6th August 2011 at the Baba Yara stadium.
On the day that the nation had its first ever International Track and Field Meet, the sizeable crowd at the Baba Yara stadium reminded all and sundry that there is still a massive following for athletics in the country.
The crowd illuminated the skies in Kumasi and earlier fears of a downpour were replaced by scenes of athletes competing feverishly for honours on the track and the field.
The atmosphere was simply electrifying as all doubts surrounding the competition evaporated into thin air the minute the gun went off for the start of the women’s 4*100m relay event.
Surely, the women’s quartet of Beatrice Gyaman, Rosina Amenebede, Flings Owusu Agyapong and Vida Anim turned on the style winning the race comfortably to a rapturous welcome.
The men’s 4*100m relay team, though, stole the show minutes later when the collection of Ghanaian sprinters, some of whom had only just met each other for the first time, combined to challenge the 14-year-old national record with an impressive run of 38.92 secs, a time that also automatically qualified Ghana for the World Championship in South Korea.
What made the feat even more admirable was the fact that the quartet, made of Aziz Zakari, Emmanuel Appiah-Kubi, Tim Abeyie and Ashaad Agyapong, barely had time to practice their baton changing, and went into the race virtually strangers. They used very conservative baton exchanges to run that fast time, suggesting that with some practice before the World Championships and African Games, there might be some ecstasy ahead for Ghana in those competitions.
The expectant crowd wanted to see more Ghanaian victories following the bright opening of two straight relay victories, but alas, that was not to be as the International stars took over, consigning the home team to silver and bronze medals in the sprints, jumps, throws, and middle distance.
Although the Ghanaians performed very creditably, the fact was that the GAA had invited some excellent athletes from Jamaica, USA, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and elsewhere. The harsh reality dawned on the crowd and they also adjusted immediately, offering support to every athlete on the track, be it local or international. And it was something USA’s former World Long Jump champion Tianna Madison appreciated.
When asked about the one thing that impressed her most at the meet, she replied “the fans and how they make you feel important,” she told E TV Sports adding that “they appreciated the effort you put on the track whether it was the long jumper who fouled or didn’t jump as far, they still responded. That is was something that was really cool and doesn’t always happen elsewhere.”
Despite the disappointment of not seeing more national athletes qualify for the World Championship, there was plenty of encouragement for Athletics Ghana to take forward into the remainder of 2011 and even beyond.
The meet gave the opportunity to many athletes of Ghanaian descent to compete for their motherland in front of home crowd for the first time. They included Germany based Tim Abeyie (100m 200m), the American based trio of Ashaad Agyapong(100m 200m), Yetsa Tuakli-Wosornu (Long jump), and Kwabene Keene (Shot Put).
The France based quartet of Nii Ayi (Long jumper), Linda Simon (Long jump), Linda Benin (Hammer throw) and Mathilde Boateng (Triple jump) also experienced the thrill.
Citing the exciting atmosphere that surrounded the competition, triple jumper Mathilde Boateng later confirmed that she will begin the process to switch allegiance from France to Ghana so she can become a Ghanaian international athlete, something Flings Owusu-Agyapong (Canada), Linda Benin (France), Kwabene Keene (USA), and Tim Abeyie (England) have already done, and Ashaad Agyapong (USA) and Linda Simon (France) are in the process of doing. Certainly, this competition yielded more profit for Ghana than just the fine performances.
It is likely the successful completion of the Grand Prix will open the doors for other Ghanaian nationals in the Diaspora to seriously think about competing for the country and that in itself is not a bad idea in the short term.
Not to be outdone, some of the home-based athletes took advantage of their promotion from the just-ended Unity Games to chalk personal bests in their events; the leading light of that group was clearly Shepherd Agbeko, who took bronze in the 200m in an All-Africa Games qualifying time of 20.92 secs, thereby punching his ticket on the relay team for the World Championships, and to the race in his favorite event at the All-Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique, next month.
Still, care must be taken not to neglect the local athletes in the long run.
The Ghana Athletics Association though seems to have a plan in place to develop the sport nationwide. Since the administration of Professor Francis Dodoo took office two years ago, a national scouting program has been put in place to help unearth budding local talents.
Under the initiative, some local athletes have been offered scholarships to study abroad whiles others are been monitored and assessed for future competitions. However, it will take a comprehensive and systematic approach to make this programme successful?
The fact that the nation abounds in talent is beyond question, but the task remains one of tapping the talent and developing into world class stardom.
Those who watched the live proceedings at the Baba Yara stadium or on GTV were also given a glimpse of the future national athletes in the shape of the Ashanti region’s Dorcas Gyimah in the 200m, Long Jumper Martin Etsey, Triple Jumper Elizabeth Dadzie, Canadian based sprinter Flings Owusu Agyapong-who has the fastest Ghanaian time in the women’s 100m this season at 11:55s, Emmanuel Appiah-Kubi and Beatrice Gyaman.
At the end of the day, most of the athletes, local and foreign alike, expressed a wish to return to the venue next year to compete again. Again, Aziz Zakari summed up the feelings of his colleagues saying “I feel great. I’m happy and I hope the sponsors will look at what we did.
“I’m looking forward to next year and I hope the biggest athletes will come here.
By Erasmus Kwaw