Kenya hosts Rio canoe qualifiers

Water sports, especially those that feature in the Olympics, have been gaining popularity in the region.

That was clearly exhibited when Kenya, for the second time, hosted the Africa Canoe Slalom Olympic qualifying championships at the scenic Sagana River Camp, 101km from Nairobi.

This year, Kenya hosted eight countries for the Canoe Slalom qualifiers.

Slalom’s are held in running water, while sprints are staged on still water.

The canoe slalom held on November 8 and 9 was the second water sport qualifier for the 2016 Rio Olympics. The rowing qualifier was held in October in Tunis. Kenya and Uganda participated, but did not qualify for Rio.

The Sagana championships were a success for the organisers, but the Kenyan paddlers settled for bronze medals with Senegal, Morocco and Nigeria dominating the event.

Nigerian’s Jonathan Akiyemi and Jean Pierre Bourhis from Senegal won the men’s Kayak (K1) and Canoe (C1) respectively.

Kenya’s Alphaxard Maina claimed bronze in C1, behind Lindelani Ngidi from South Africa. Samuel Muturi was the best placed Kenyan in K1, in fourth place.

Akiyemi, who is based in the United Kingdom, and the France-based Bourhis, claimed Africa’s slots. Eighteen-year-old Hind Jamili from Morocco, who is also based in France, won the women’s K1 Kenya’s Grace Maina won bronze.

Akiyemi, 26, will be making his second appearance at the Olympics after his debut at the 2012 London Summer Games, while Bourhis, 21, will be participating for the first time.

Akiyemi finished at position 21 in the heats at the London Summer Games, failing to qualify for the semifinals.

So what makes paddlers from North and West Africa different from the rest of the continent?

Akiyemi, Bourhis and Jamili spend most of their time in Europe thanks to their dual citizenship. They compete in high profile events in Europe that give them the required exposure.

“This is my third time in Kenya, but my first time to qualify from here for the Olympics,” said Akiyemi, who qualified in South Africa for the 2012 London Olympics. 

Akiyemi, who started rowing at the age of 16, said international bodies and respective governments need to support local federations to develop the sport. “The standards have improved, but I have an edge because of my exposure to good facilities in the UK,” said Akiyemi. “We need to start the children off at tender age, and better facilities are needed.”

Bourhis, who has a Senegalese mother and a French father, has represented Senegal since 2012, at the World Junior Championships in 2012, 2013 and 2014 and the World Championships for seniors in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

“Kenya has only one natural course and that can’t serve all,” said Bourhis, who had attended a five-day camp with French internationals. “Kenya needs to build some artificial courses and at good locations for easy access.”

Bourhis trains daily, with the sessions stretching up to two hours.

“My training isn’t concentrated on paddling alone, but gym sessions, running and swimming,” he added.

Jean Michel Prono, a director at the International Canoe Federation, said the challenge most Africa countries are facing is consistency. “We want kids to grow in the sport but lack of basic needs hinders the growth of the sport,” said Prono.

Prono said Kenya needs to find another two or three other locations for the sport besides Sagana. “Education in the sport is important since it will allow youth aged 10 to 12 to grow into it,” Prono said.

Africa Canoe Federation secretary general Seif Patwa bemoaned the lack of support and goodwill from the government. “The Sports Ministry has been the main undoing,” said Patwa, adding that they only get financial support from the international federation and the local Olympic Committee.

Kenya needed $148,000 to host the event, and had to operate on a shoestring budget.

Kenya Navy officer Ibrahim Githaiga made history as the first black African to compete in rowing at the Olympics at the 2004 Athens Summer Games.

At the 2008 Olympics Games, Kenya’s Matthew Lidaywa took part in the men’s single sculls rowing, an event which was dominated by defending Olympic champion Olaf Tufte of Norway.

The focus now shifts to the Africa Canoe Sprints Championships, which will serve as Rio Olympics 2016 qualifiers, from March 29 to April 4, 2016 in Durban, South Africa.