Last month’s retirement of former Ugandan Cranes captain Ibrahim Sekagya followed only days later by marathon runner Stephen Kiprotich’s second place finish in the Tokyo marathon, maybe considered a passing of the baton between two of our generations most accomplished athletes.
Kiprotich, the current Olympic and World Champion, may have captured our collective imaginations with his burst from obscurity in the last three years, but Sekagya has been a consummate professional in his sport for close to two decades.
There is every indication that the level headed Kiprotich, barring any injuries, will be a contender for top honours in any marathon he races for a few years to come, but Sekagya has displayed a consistency in performance only reserved for the truly great.
True, Sekagya’s Cranes teams never won the Africa Cup of Nations, leave alone qualify for the continent’s premier showpiece or the World Cup for that matter. Sekagya played in the Champion’s league but his teams never won.
Success is relative.
In a country like Uganda ,starved of high level sporting success Sekagya is a god, in Brazil he would be a straggler. But credit to Sekagya he did not rest on his laurels, even though for the greater part of his career he was head and shoulders above his local contemporaries.
The story has not been told but how many times did he dread returning to the European winter after a holiday break back in Uganda? How many times did he look at what he had achieved, accumulated, looked at his friends here and wondered why he was sweating? How many times away from home, hounded by injury and his mind wracked with self-doubt, did he wish he could just lie down and give up?
"Whichever way you look at it, it is hard to take away anything from Sekagya’s achievements. The true accomplishment of Sekagya’s career was that he was able to rise above the mediocrity, the whining and bitching of his countrymen, which would have easily weighed his spirit down to not only survive but thrive on a greater stage. He committed to the discipline on and off the pitch not only for days or weeks or even months, but for years on end, in order to unleash his full potential.
We forget that he was part of a talented team that made it to the semis of the All African Games soccer competition in 1999. While he was a talent, some people who watched him play then would not choose him ahead of Andrew Mukasa, Hassan Mubiru or Willy Kyambade.
The difference between the best and the rest on any level is not down to physical attributes --- talent, speed, strength or stamina but it is down to the more spiritual aspects, emotional maturity and mental toughness.
At a certain level of achievement in sport, the physical side is a given but what separates the boys from the men is the inner man or woman.
When we drill down to the real difference between Sekagya and his contemporaries, I wouldl not be surprised to discover that Sekagya first, did not aim for glory with a mind of blowing his earnings in the night clubs and getting back at all the girls in his younger days who never gave him the time of day. He probably did it for the love of the game and the thrill of pushing beyond perceived limits. The fame and fortune were a by-product of the process and nothing to get distracted by.
"There is a formula that applies to sport but also life: mental discipline leads to concentration, concentration leads to consistency, consistency leads to momentum and momentum leads to victory...
Which brings us to Kiprotich.
No one, who has half an inclining of what work Kiprotich puts into getting ready to perform, would accuse him of being a natural talent. He probably doesn’t think he is a natural talent himself.
It about grinding out the kilometres come sun or rain, no excuses, no complaining.
We might put down their phenomenal success to some inborn talent. We might even go further accusing them of being lucky, of being, at certain points in their lives, at the right place at the right time.
But those will all be excuses on our part to justify our continued wallowing in mediocrity.
They say to tell how a man will turn out later in life, look out for who his boyhood heroes were. If he was impressed by the glitz and glamour of the village playboy he will somehow gravitate in that direction. If on the other hand his heroes were the no frills neighbour, honest to a fault, a diligent worker and thrifty with his resources the boy might have a chance in life.
So let these be our children’s heros, these young men who have risen from the mediocrity of their societies, never shirked a day of hard work and while reveling in their success, have kept a good head on their shoulders.