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From Athens To Africa

Nine golds, 13 silvers and 13 bronze – 35 medals. That's the number of Olympic medals placed around African necks during 19 days of competition in Athens. Coincidentally, 35 is also the number of medals Africa won at the 2000 Olympics in Australia, the home of Da Ole Sports Emperor’s beloved Momma Maughan, “The Chicken Soup Lady.” I’m heading Down Under shortly to visit Momma, but let’s get back to Africa’s performance in Athens. Only nine of the 53 African countries that competed in Athens won medals.

As they have done in every Olympic Games for the past 20 years or so, the Africans once again dominated the longer distance track events, winning 17 medals in men's and women's races of 1500 meters or longer.

Of those 17 medals, 15 went to East Africans and the remaining two to Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj, winner of gold in the men's 1500 and 5000 meters. So clearly, the recent and strong North African challenge to East African dominance in these events has fallen away, at least for now. Clearly, Morocco is keeping the North African long distance tradition alive with El Guerrouj carrying on the torch so splendidly ignited by, most notably, Said Aouita. But, on the other hand, what's happened to Algeria, the land of legendary Nourreddine Morceli? Algeria failed to win a single medal at the Athens Olympics. As Morocco has succeeded in keeping its tradition alive, so have the Ethiopians and Kenyans. Their factory of high altitude champions keeps churning them out.

Take Ethiopia for example. For most of us, Haile Gebrselassie has to go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, long distance runners of all time. Talk about attaining legendary status in one's own lifetime! In fact, the only Ethiopian arguably revered more is the incomparable Abebe Bikila, winner of back-to-back Olympic marathons in Rome and Tokyo.

Now along comes young Kenenisa Bekele, who could have very easily run to gold in Athens in both the men's 5000 and 10,000 meters. In the end, he had to settle for silver behind El Guerrouj in the 5000 meters, after atrocious tactical blunders practically gave the race to the Moroccan on a silver platter. I'm here to predict that won't happen again and only did because the Kenyans and Ethiopians worried too much about each other's obvious strengths. So, they dawdled along, thus preserving the wily El Guerrouj's phenomenal closing kick.

Olympic organizers ought to just give all the 3000 meters steeplechase medals to the Kenyans ahead of time to avoid having to go through the motions of actually running the race. Yet again, the Kenyans made it a clean sweep, while placing second in the men's 1500 meters and third in the men's 5000 meters.

However, a closer examination of the two East African long distance powers shows that the Ethiopians have been much more successful in duplicating the top flight performances across gender lines. In fact, of Ethiopia's seven medals, four were won by women, including a golden performance in the 5000 meters by Meseret Defar. So even here the torch has been passed from pioneer Derartu Tulu, even though Derartu's career is far from over considering her bronze medal performance in the 10,000 meters.

In stark contrast, only two of Kenya's seven medals were won by females, silver medal performances in the 5000 meters by Isabellah Ochichi and in the women's marathon by Catherine Ndereba. I say "only" because down through the years Kenyan women have threatened a major break through but so far it hasn't quite happened.

Let me return to Hicham El Guerrouj for a moment to pay tribute not only to the overpowering athlete but to the man himself. I can't think of many athletes who could have possessed the mental strength to overcome the devastating disappointments of the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics. In both instances, El Guerrouj was the prohibitive favorite to win the 1500 meters event, the race he has dominated after the legacy was passed on by his countryman, Said Aouita. Both times he came away empty. It was said it was not meant for the Moroccan star to win the only major title still alluding him. Now, a full eight years after Atlanta, he not only captures his specialty, but the 5000 meters as well -- the first to duplicate the feat of the legendary Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi, at the Paris Olympics of 1924.

South Africa finished fourth in Africa's medal standings, with one gold, three silvers and two bronze. Their performances in the pool were quite heartening, especially their dramatic upset win in the men's four by one hundred meters relay; and Roland Mark Schoeman's silver in the 100 meters freestyle and a bronze in the 50 meters freestyle. But keeping on my earlier theme of Africa's weakness in technical events, both Schoeman and Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry – winner of gold, silver and bronze in Athens – have honed their swimming skills in the United States – Schoeman at the University of Arizona, and Coventry at Auburn University in the southern U.S. state of Alabama.

Kudos also must go to Egypt's Karam Ibrahim, who won gold in the men's 96-kilogram Greco-Roman wrestling competition, and Cameroon's Frangoise Mbango Etone, the gold medalist in the women's triple jump.

Of course, there's more than enough disappointment to go around when it comes to African athletes. Spare a thought for competitors from the 44 African countries that failed to win a single medal.

But if I had to name the one country seething right now it has to be Nigeria. With that country's almost unlimited potential -- and to come away with only two bronze in the men's sprint relays -- something is wrong, dreadfully wrong. Adding salt to the wound is the rags to riches saga of 100 meters silver medalist Francis Obikwelu. Obikwelu, disgusted and disillusioned at his treatment in Nigeria, took his considerable talents to Portugal and the rest, as they say, is history.

With just a modicum of managerial structure and expertise, there's no reason why Nigeria can't come home with at least 20 medals from each Olympic Games. Instead, they spin their wheels on post mortems and "woulda, coulda and shouda" sessions that get them no where fast. But the big shot administrators still get their fancy all expenses paid trips, so why rock the boat, right? Exit the Obikwelus for greener pastures.

You might have noticed that I've yet to touch on Africa's performance in football. That's coming up in my third and final Olympic commentary, to be written upon my arrival in Australia later this month to visit my 92-year-old mom, "The Chicken Soup Lady." Any wagers on my chances of getting her secret recipe this time around?