QUITE often when athletics legends like Kipchoge Keino of Kenya, Sebastian Coe of Britain, John Walker of New Zealand and their like speak about their good old days you hear them expressing sorrow that Tanzania has lost its glory in the sport.
Late last year, as Britain was making final preparations to host the Olympic Games, I saw on television Sir Sebastian Coe, who was Chairman of its Organising Committee, taking a few seconds to talk about the great Tanzanian middle distance runner with boyish looks, Filbert Bayi.
Coe, now a respected politician and sports official in Britain, is considered to be amongst the greatest middle distance runner of all time. Coe who set eight outdoor and three indoor world records in the 1980's said he has for long hoped to see athletes like Bayi from Tanzania, but it seems it is a dream that he thinks it won't come true in his life time. To many people worldwide, the final of the 1500 metres at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand on February 2, 1974 was a competition which will for long be remembered. It was a day when people in many countries said openly that they heard for the first time a country called Tanzania when Bayi established a new world record of the event in 3.32.16. Some knew our country because of Mount Kilimanjaro, Serengeti, Ngorongoro, mines, coffee and cloves and of course the late President, Mwalimu Nyerere.
In that historical race Bayi was followed by John Walker of New Zealand (3:32.52); Ben Jipcho of Kenya (3:33.16) and Rodney Dixon of New Zealand (3:33.89). Bayi's compatriot Suleiman Nyambui was eighth (3:39.62). Bayi, who led the race from the start, recorded 54.4 seconds at the 400m mark, 1:51.8 at 800m and 2:50.4 at 1200m.
At that time and for a couple of years that followed Tanzania produced athletes who became household names in the international athletics arena. Together with Morocco, Algeria, Kenya and Ethiopia, we were considered, among African countries which had the best middle distance runners in Africa.
Unfortunately, we have lost a place in that category of possessing respected and recognised international athletes. While the other four countries and a few others like South Africa have been producing talents which have replaced their predecessors we have continued to apply a reverse gear.
All that we are now proud of are our athletes of the bygone era, such as Bayi, Nyambui and Juma Ikangaa! Everyone is asking: What happened? Are Tanzanians of this era different from those of yester years and can no longer produce talents of the Bayi's caliber?
It is high time that we make a serious assessment and evaluation of the situation and come out with a strategy and well defined programmes that will help us move forward and recapture our loss glory. Two months back when I was in Arusha I took time on Sunday morning to drop at the Sheikh Amri Abeid where there was a sports competition for students of Manyara and Arusha regions.
Soon after entering the stadium I was disappointed (rather shocked) to see that few people had turned up to see our young men and women compete, far different from how it was in the 1970's when I was in Arusha as the Daily/Sunday News Bureau Chief. In those days the stadium was usually packed by young men and women, as well as elders, politicians and religious leaders.
Regional Commissioner Aron Mwakang'ata, Regional Police Commander Ahmed Shungu and the Town Clerk Emil Sengati never missed those competitions. The empty stadium was an indicator that the public has either lost interest in sports or the games were not well publicised.
On the other hand, there was very little coverage of the meeting in the local media compared to how it was in the past. Interestingly, I noticed that there were big advertising posters of the scheduled tour of the Jahazi Taarab Group in Arusha, mobile telephone companies and local herbalists for each and every disease or problems of love affairs almost everywhere, but not about sports competitions that attracted more than 300 participants from the two regions.
This is not a healthy situation at all. Our media, which nowadays seem to have special interest in beauty contests, perhaps because brown envelopes are provided as transports costs to those covering the events, has to realise now as well as later, that it has an obligation and social responsibility to promote sports by giving full coverage to these games.
Wide publicity motivates the competitors. It is important for officials who organise these games to take trouble to advertise them and not simply concentrate on organising them and looking for sponsors who provide them track suits, food and water for the competitors and funds to run the games.
The government also has to take athletics seriously, instead of only waiting for our athletes to make miracles when they go out of the country to take part in international meetings and come back with medals and congratulate them for being good ambassadors.
But what is more important is for Athletics Tanzania (AT) to come out with a well outlined programme that will help to popularize and promote athletics in schools and other learning institutions. What we see from AT today is its officials concentrating in organising local meetings and competing to make trips with our athletes, even if they are below standards, to take part in the international competitions.
I am told that these officials sometimes compete quietly on who should make a particular trip and no wonder at times we see the number of officials accompanying our athletes is as many as that of the competitors! It is also worth noting that the athletics body, like many other sports associations, stay for too long with the same leadership which normally runs out of new ideas and innovations.
It is high time that those who have stayed for too long in the leadership circles and failed to deliver step down and give way to new blood which could perhaps take us a step forward, or at least stop the reverse gear.
The earlier we realise the need for change in leadership and organisation in athletics the better for the sport and the country. Tanzanians can no longer wait for tomorrow which, with the present situation, seems to be near and yet so far away.