Commonwealth Games: Kenya's quest for historic gold

When it comes to the Commonwealth Games, Kenya's record on the track speaks for itself.At Glasgow in 2014, gol...

Posted: Apr 12, 2018 3:12 PM
Updated: Apr 12, 2018 3:12 PM

When it comes to the Commonwealth Games, Kenya's record on the track speaks for itself.

At Glasgow in 2014, golds were won at every distance from 800m to 10,000m and in the men's 3,000m steeplechase, only Kenyan athletes have claimed medals since 1994.

Away from the track, Kenya has never won gold in a Commonwealth team event

Hopes to medal in the rugby sevens

Drawn alongside four-time champion New Zealand

Never, though, has the African nation won gold in a team event away from the track -- but that could be about to change.

A powerful force on the rugby sevens circuit with a trophy to prove it, Shujaa, as Kenya's national team is known, has a chance at history on Australia's Gold Coast this week.

While many Kenyan athletes have disappointed at the Games so far, the expectations of the rugby team are high after back-to-back runner-up finishes in Hong Kong and Vancouver on the Sevens World Series circuit.

"It could be a really big thing for us to get the gold," Andrew Amonde, a former captain approaching 300 World Series matches for his country, tells CNN Sport.

"We have waited for this for a very long time. Winning gold -- it's something the team feel they could do.

"To be the first team ever to bring something back home would be a huge achievement for us, something we really feel we can go out and achieve."

READ: Kenya finishes second at Hong Kong

READ: Uganda rugby star Solomon Okia revels in World Cup dream

Sacrifice, belief -- and one 'mega boost'

In Kenya's pool is four-time Commonwealth champion New Zealand, but that shouldn't phase Shujaa, who toppled the All Blacks en route to the Cup Final in Hong Kong.

Two defeats to Fiji mean Kenya hasn't been able to match what remains the team's proudest achievement -- lifting the Singapore Sevens trophy in 2016, the nation's first and only Sevens World Series title to date.

It's a moment Amonde, who captained the side that day, remembers fondly.

"Winning that trophy was a mega boost for our squad," he explains.

"We had put in a lot of sacrifice to get there over the years and having won the first one is something that really boosted our morale -- we saw that it's possible and it gave us that belief."

Part of the squad that fell just short in the two recent Cup Finals, Amonde hopes the promising form can be carried into future tournaments.

"We're playing very well. We are basing our next tournaments on some of the things we did in Vancouver ... we're hoping to get into the finals, and hope we can win a medal for the country," he said.

Challenges

A few decades ago, the Kenya Rugby Union took the decision to focus efforts on the seven-a-side game. In the 15-a-side format, Kenya was only at a stage to compete against other African nations; with sevens, they had the prospect of competing internationally.

At the time, rivals laughed but over the years it's reaped rewards.

Since then, the likes of Uganda and Zimbabwe have followed suit and focused their attentions on rugby's shortened format.

"We took that decision and it has paid off," Kenya Rugby president Richard Omwela tells CNN. "We are now able to beat some of the big boys on the global leagues.

"We've ended up playing, for example, New Zealand, who we would never dream of playing in fifteens."

But despite Shujaa's impressive rise on the world circuit, challenges still remain. Results on the field belie the difference in resources between Kenya and some of its rivals.

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Sponsors have been difficult to secure on a consistent basis, and many players balance their rugby duties with part-time jobs or university studies.

"Countries like the United States, countries like England, or countries like South Africa have got a lot of resources and are able to condition players to compete at a high level. We don't have enough of those sorts of resources," says Omwela.

"It's difficult for a player to be away for 14 days out in Hong Kong or Singapore -- going to United States one week then Vancouver another. It's hard for employers to keep you in your job if half the time you're never at your place of work. It's very, very challenging for us.

"While, for example, the England players will be in rehab or training and so on, we don't have that luxury. Funding is a major issue."

As for the players, all they can do is to keep performing and hope their efforts don't get overlooked.

"When we returned from Vancouver, the government took notice of us -- that the boys are playing well and need support," says Omwela.

"They're able to send high-level officials to receive the team when they arrive. Sometimes when we don't play well, we don't see them as often when we arrive. We slip in the taxi and continue our training."

Looking forwards

The Commonwealth Games is a further opportunity for Shujaa to establish themselves as one of the world's top teams and maybe make a piece of national history in the process.

As far as Omwela is concerned, he'd be delighted if the team, which has never finished higher than seventh at the Commonwealths, left Australia with a medal of any color.

"Obviously riding on the way we're playing (at the moment) we are hoping for a podium finish," he said. "Not necessarily a gold but even picking up a silver or a bronze would be a big achievement for us. We believe that the players we've got are capable of doing that."

Beyond the immediate focus of the Commonwealth Games, he says he'd like to see his country break into the top four of the Sevens World Series standings -- positions usually occupied by heavyweights New Zealand, Fiji, South Africa and England -- in the next five years.

Amonde, who only took up the sport after leaving school when he caught the eye of a local coach for "looking rugby-like," thinks there's still work to be done if Kenya "really wants to be ranked amongst the best.

"We have to improve the quality of the things we do back home and having the players coming through from an amateur set-up to a professional set-up," he says.

Visit cnn.com/rugby for more news and videos

He, like Omwela, says the primary focus on the Gold Coast is also to get a medal of any kind.

But if this Kenyan side was to go one step further, who knows what sort of crowd could greet them when they step off the plane from Australia.

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