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S. Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia Dominate African Athletic Meet


South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Kenya have dominated the African Athletics Championships, capturing a combined 30 of the 44 gold medals. South Africa finished on top with 12 golds and a total of 22 medals. Nigeria was second with 19 medals, seven of them gold. Host Ethiopia took third with 15 medals including a gold-silver-bronze sweep in both the men's and women's 10,000 meter races. VOA's Peter Heinlein was at Addis Ababa stadium for the five-day meet, and captured the excitement at the women's 10 K finish line.

SPORTCASTER: "The winner is Ethiopia. One, two, three, Ethiopia. The crowd is ecstatic. The Dibaba sisters take the gold and silver. The winning time, Tirunesh Dibaba, 32 minutes, 49 point 08 seconds."

Tirunesh's older sister Ejegayehu Dibaba finished one second behind Tirunesh. The Ethiopian medal sweep was a repeat of the Ethiopian men's accomplishment in the 10K race a couple days earlier. That accounted for six of Ethiopia's 15 medals. Ethiopia's multiple world record holder Kenenisa Bekele added another gold with a win in one of his specialties, the 5,000 meter race.

Kenya's men swept the boards in the 3,000 meter steeplechase, and finished fourth overall in the medal standings. The steeplechase victory prompted an ecstatic Kenyan sports minister Helen Sambili to say she felt like running herself. She called it a new day for a country emerging from months of political strife.

"This is the new Kenya now," said Helen Sambili. "We're having a makeover now. We have solved the problems. The coalition government in place. We are back on track again.

The championships were marred somewhat by the absence of some of Africa's greatest track stars. The 2,400 - meter altitude in Addis Ababa may have been a factor in keeping some distance-runner away. The altitude's debilitating effect was clearly evident at the end of one heat of the women's 800-meter race, won by Nigeria's Damola Osayomi.

SPORTCASTER: "Nigeria wins the women's 800 meter race. Oh my, they're down. All three of the top finishers are on the track, lying in agony. Oh my, they're carrying the winner off. They lift her up by her arms and her legs. All three of the runners have to be carried off. They're in agony. The second place runner is being lifted onto a stretcher. The winner is trying to get up, struggling to stand up, but can't do it. She barely made it across the line and just collapsed."

Fortunately, all the competitors later were reported to have recovered fully, and Nigerian Damola Osayomi's time was good enough to earn her a silver medal.

The five-day competition saw the emergence of several rising African athletic stars. Among them South Africa's Hennie Kotze, who took gold in the men's 100 meter hurdles even though he had never run it before. He told VOA his victory had given him the confidence to try to go on and qualify for the Olympics.

"I decided this that if I do good, I'm going to go on, otherwise not," said Hennie Kotze. "So I'm gonna go on. Just focus on a bit on this. Because I did decathlon in the beginning of the year, so I'm just gonna focus on it. I trained for about a month. I'm very happy now."

Despite his team's 12 gold medals, South Africa's head coach Ekkart Arbeit said he was not satisfied with his athletes' performance. He said not a single South African gold medal performance in Addis would be good enough for a medal at the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

"This is for the next part of preparation, not good enough. Not good enough," said Ekkart Arbeit.

QUESTION: "Why not?"

"Because with these results, when we take these results. I speak only for the south African team, I don't know all the results, there is not one medal in Beijing," said Arbeit. "That's for sure."

While not pleased with his own team's performance, Arbeit called it a great day for African athletics. He has been coaching Olympic teams since the 1968 games in Mexico City. He said since then, Africa has come from almost no athletic programs to the point where at this meet, 42 countries participated, and 24 won medals.

"When we see the development from that time to now, maybe there were three four countries from Africa in the Olympic Games," he said. "Now you see how many countries have medals here. And that is great. That is for the development of athletics in Africa, not only South Africa, very, very important."

These 16th annual African championships mark the first time Ethiopia has hosted such an event. Admission was free in this country where the average income is less than $200 dollars a year, and families crammed the 25,000 - seat stadium for a glimpse of some of their national heroes. Tens of thousands had to be turned away after the stadium was full, and throngs packed a nearby city square where the games were shown on a big screen TV.

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